FOX 8 Defenders: Lakeview neighbors frustrated with repeat blight offenders

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A vacant Lakeview property along Vicksburg Street in disrepair isn't the worst-looking property, but concerned neighbors worry that what's behind the fence poses a disturbing health and safety hazard.

"It's so filthy and disgusting, you'd never see a child in there," homeowner Brigette Starr explained. She's past the point of frustration with the house next door. Its in-ground swimming pool is dark and stagnant, and the lock on the gate that's supposed to keep people out doesn't work. Starr has seen the gate blow open in a strong wind, and that's not all - the property has been found guilty of several violations, including "rodent harborage"'

"I look out of my kitchen window and there's a dead, rotting possum on the roof," Starr said. She and her father, Walter Brunken, say the property has a history of city code enforcement violations dating back to 2009.

"I've been to no less than 10 or 12 code enforcement hearings since the time we acquired the house, and it's been a very frustrating process," Brunken explained.

The property was found guilty and fined.  When owner Frances Musacchia failed to pay thousands of dollars in code enforcement liens, the city seized the property for a sheriff's sale a few years ago, but Brunken says on the day of the sale, she paid up.

"The reality is they did nothing to continue to address with her the pool. We had to start a complaint process all over again."  So the city got paid, and Musacchia got to keep her home, but the violations were never remediated, and the neighbors were right back to square one.

Fast forward to this year. The city issued another seizure of Musacchia's home, in which she now owes more than $14,000 in code enforcement liens. To top all of that, she received Road Home money after Hurricane Katrina.

I talked to Musacchia by phone. She said the amount of Road Home money she received through the state program wasn't enough to fix her home and claims she did not have flood insurance. She explained she wants the pool up and running, but says the city permit department has been difficult to make that happen.

"Just like any other private property owner, she (Musacchia) is responsible for keeping that dangerous pool secured and keeping children away from it and doing all the things that as a property owner you have to do," said Chad Dyer, Director of the Department of Code Enforcement for the City of New Orleans.

Dyer explained that the city is limited in what it can do by the U.S. Constitution. For repeat offenders, the city hits them with daily fines that can run in the hundreds of dollars a day.

"When you have a repeat offender, you've been told once nicely, so now you're going to be told a little more forcefully, and we're going to continue to do it and these fines can get up pretty high," Dyer said.

The Vicksburg address is one of several properties Rita Legrand with the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association has been tracking.

"It's just been a horror story for us in Lakeview to have this terribly blighted property sitting right here on our main street," she said.

The original owner of the Canal Boulevard home she referred to also received Road Home money. Right now, it has 11 code enforcement violations.

"The whole back of the building is not there. It's gone," Legrand said.  We walked the property, and she wasn't exaggerating.

"They can pay the fine and never do anything to remediate the property. That's the biggest problem right now that we're facing," Legrand said.

At a recent city code enforcement hearing, it was clear the property has had a history of problems. A code enforcement hearing facilitator for the city, Vanessa Logan, told the hearing officer the property is a seven-time repeat offender from defective gutters and downspouts and unsecured windows to missing exterior walls and deteriorating studs.

A code enforcement officer also explained that the city had a judgment against the property for its demolition at one point and then again in 2008, but told the hearing officer that the state Office of Historical Preservation declined the city.

At the hearing, it wasn't clear who owned the property. An attorney for Grab LLC member Ruth Ramsey showed up along with Jimmy Lonadier who says he purchased the property's tax certificate this year.

"I paid over $7,000, and $6,000 of that was for prior blight fines," Lonadier said.

The hearing officer assessed the property the maximum fine, a $500 daily fine up to one year, and if the violations aren't abated by then, he ordered demolition.

"It's possible that the structure could come down sooner than that if it's truly in imminent danger of collapse. At that point, we're moved past ownership and legal disputes," Dyer explained.

Lonadier got no direction on what he can or can't do to remediate the property. Still, he paid to have someone clean, paint, board up and hang tarps around the house.

Just this week, the Orleans Assessor's Office confirmed to FOX 8 that Grab LLC owns the property. We reached out to its registered agent, Terrance Dugas, but never heard back. According to the Secretary of State, that LLC is "inactive" because it hasn't filed its annual business report.

"A lot of people here have built their home, rebuilt their homes after Katrina, and this is what we look at daily. It's just not fair for us," explained a concerned neighbor around the corner on Woodlawn Place.

The grass and weeds towered around a corner home at Woodlawn and Homedale.

"We've seen a lot of wild animals, little snakes, and we've seen critters and raccoons and you know all different types of wild animals, and I see them coming out of this property," neighbor Mike Seagle said.

The original property owner also received Road Home money, but sold it gutted in 2009 to Holly Barrett and Edward Rome. Rome appeared at the latest code enforcement hearing with his attorney.  They explained the grass had been cut, but just days before the hearing.

"I understand I've been in here several times, but for me to buy the house and get dragged into court a week after, that's...," a frustrated Rome said.

They also explained it's been difficult financially to repair the place and sell the property because Rome's co-owner hasn't been cooperative..

Since the property's a five-time repeat blight offender since 2010 with violations including exposed exterior walls, the city recommended maximum daily fines.

"I'm entirely convinced this property is the victim of severe neglect," the code enforcement hearing officer said.  He then ordered a $300 a day fine for six months until the property's abated.

"Frustration is what I call the revolving door of the process. You go through the process, and some of them have been through a couple of hearings, a couple of fines...My thing is we haven't accomplished anything. It's still blighted," David Wilson with the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association said.

Concerned property owners and civic leaders hope that by exposing these problem properties, the people responsible will step up and take meaningful action now.

The FOX 8 Defenders is staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women also field consumer complaints at 1-877-670-6397 or you can fill out an online complaint form.

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