Fox 8 Defenders: Owners of blighted property could face jail time under proposed law change

Published: May. 1, 2023 at 10:38 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The City of New Orleans says fighting blight is among its top priorities. But tracking down an out-of-town property owner can sometimes throw a wrench in that plan. Now, a proposal to change state law might help by threatening jail time.

Just steps from McDonough 35 sits a building that’s a shell of what this property once was. Cheryl Barrow would know.

“We moved there in 2007,” Barrow said. “At the time, the place was beautiful.”

But over the years, that beauty diminished.

“Look at the overgrown trees,” Barrow said. “You can see the holes in the walls in the house.”

New Orleans City Councilman Eugene Green, who represents this district, said, “Sometimes, I don’t understand why owners who are in nice areas choose to let their properties get so vacant and derelict as this.”

The once-bustling apartment complex on Encampment Street -- just off Harrison Avenue -- now is the talk of the neighborhood for a different reason.

“There’s people over here on this side of the street,” Barrow said. “They’ve got kids. Anybody could be in there at nighttime.”

Green said it would be a priority of his office to see the property cleaned up and returned to commerce. But getting that done isn’t as easy as you might think.

“People -- whether they’re out-of-towners or in-towners with deep pockets -- can sort of be immune to the regular enforcement process,” said Thomas Mulligan, head of the city’s code enforcement department. “They just keep paying off fines or they just don’t care. They keep tying things up in litigation.

“We certainly have cases where we have obdurate owners. And we need new tools to go after owners like that.”

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Code enforcement has cited this property several times for violations. It has been vacant since 2019. City records show thousands of dollars in fines have gone unpaid, and there are tax liens on the property as well.

Green says tracking down the owner of such properties to hold them accountable is half the battle. Both the New Orleans city assessor’s website and New Orleans’ one-stop app list the owner as 41 Encampment LLC, care of Abigail Land Holdings 27 LLC. Abigail Land Holdings is based in Omaha, Neb.

“The owner lives out of town, they’ve received notices,” Green said. “It becomes a little bit challenging to take them to court if they simply don’t respond.”

That’s why state Rep. Mandie Landry (D-New Orleans) is trying to change a state law on the books. It’s called the criminal blight statute.

“These properties -- bottom line -- are a public health nuisance,” Landry said.

Current law stipulates criminal penalties for owners of blighted properties. But enforcing that law is difficult because it says civil penalties against a property -- such as code enforcement fines -- must be addressed first. Property owners can file appeal after appeal, tying up the case for years.

“What we are hoping, and we think it might work, is to run the appeal process at the same time as the criminal process, to just kind of light a fire under them and say, ‘You really have to start fixing this or try to sell the property, because we’re going to put you in jail,’” Landry said.

Landry’s bill calls for an owner of a blighted property to be fined no more than $500 for the first criminal conviction. A second conviction carries a fine up to $1,000 for each violation, and up to six months in jail. A third conviction could be punishable by a $2,000 fine per violation and up to a year of jail time.

“I think they’ll be able to enforce this against more people, which will hopefully be a deterrent to other people,” Landry said.

The idea is supported by the New Orleans City Council. Landry says she worked closely with the city to craft the proposed legislation.

City Council vice president Helena Moreno said, “At the end of the day, if you don’t care about all the civil penalties and administrative fees, well, what if we went after you on the criminal side? Do you care then? Because I don’t think you’ll want to have a criminal record. Maybe that impacts you.”

Barrow said she just wants to see the Encampment Street property restored, bringing more life to the neighborhood while helping those who still call the street home.

Landry’s proposal passed the full House last week and now moves to a Senate committee for approval. If passed, criminal violations for blight would be handed out in Municipal Court. We sought comment from Abigail Land Holdings and 41 Encampment LLC, but never got a response.

If you have a consumer complaint you’d like us to look into, call the Fox 8 Defenders, staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women at 1-877-670-6397. Or click here to fill out our online complaint form, which is the easiest way to reach us.

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