NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The FOX 8 Defenders eight months ago shed light on three problem properties in Lakeview: 5530 Canal Boulevard, 5588 Woodlawn Place and 5700 Vicksburg. All three of them received Road Home money to make repairs after Katrina, yet the vacant homes have a history of City Code Enforcement violations going back years.
For that November 2017 FOX 8 Defenders report, we spoke to neighbors and civic leaders, and we attended Code Enforcement hearings where a facilitator for the City of New Orleans pointed out that one of the properties in question was a seven-time repeat blight offender.
Fast forward to today, and two of the properties have been cleaned up. The Canal Boulevard home was missing its back wall and in danger of collapsing. After years of Code Enforcement hearings and nearly a dozen violations, the City demolished it.
"It's absolutely amazing that it's now an empty lot. We just can't even believe it," Rita LeGrand with the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association said.
Weeds used to tower around the Woodlawn Place property. Neighbors couldn't even use on the sidewalk. Since then, that's all been cut, and the property changed hands.
"We're super excited to see the progress. It's beautiful. Anything is an improvement," neighbor Brenda McField said.
According to McField, soon after the property sold, renovation work started right away.
Then there's the longtime nuisance property on Vicksburg where the swimming pool water remains black and stagnant.
"The homeowner has rights, and we respect that, but we should not have to live next to that disgusting pool, period," neighbor Brigette Starr said.
After we spoke to her by phone for our initial report, owner Frances Musacchia added a new lock and chain on the backyard gate. But Starr, a mother of three young children, says it's not good enough.
"My 4-year-old could absolutely walk in there if I wasn't watching him," Starr said.
When Musacchia failed to remediate the property, which had racked up more than $14,000 in daily Code Enforcement fines, the City attempted to seize it in a sheriff's sale in February. But before that could happen, Orleans Civil District Court Judge Christopher Bruno granted an injunction, stopping the sale.
"Referring to the transcript of the hearing in which the owner sought to stop the sheriff sale, the judge stopped the sheriff sale temporarily and said that there were two problems. First, that the owner wasn't notified properly or sufficiently," Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said.
Because of that decision, the City couldn't collect the $14,000 in daily fines owed.
That was the second time the Vicksburg home was scheduled for a sheriff's sale. The first time around, Starr explained that on the day of the sale, the property owner paid up.
"If you're able to pay the money for the fines whether they be 14 or 17 - she paid $17,000 in fines - you can walk up, hand over your $17,000 in fines the morning of your sheriff's sale, and walk away and everything is stopped and people like us who live next door have to start back over again," Starr said.
In a recent June meeting with City officials, Starr and her father, Walter Brunken, said they explained they feel the process is flawed because the pool on the property hasn't been cleaned up in years.
"It was like the blood drained from my body when he said you have to start all over again. So this is coming from the head of Code Enforcement that we have to start the process all over again, and I don't wanna go through another eight years," Brunken said.
Not giving up, Brunken and Starr have started the whole Code Enforcement process all over again, for a third time, opening a new complaint against the property on June 28. The first complaint was opened back in 2009.
"All that can happen is assess fees? And as long as she pays, the property remains blighted? That can't be right," Friedman said.
"The problem is the way that the rules are written, you wanna make it really hard to take away people's property, so that is one of these constitutional rights we have to be very careful about," City Councilman Joe Giarrusso said.
Having served on the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, Giarrusso is familiar with the problem pool.
"Right now we're apparently starting to see some West Nile cases coming out of City Park, so this is a safety issue too. If you're not taking care of that pool, you're leaving it abandoned, we're gonna make the process a lot harder and much stricter for you to make sure that you don't have to have this process repeated over and over again," Giarrusso said.
He's vowed to work with City Council attorneys to tighten Code Enforcement rules, a move that would have to be approved by the full council and one he hopes to have on the books before the end of the year. Brigette Starr, meantime, hopes and prays the third time around they'll finally see action.
Musacchia told FOX 8 by phone that she got a City permit years ago to make repairs to the pool, but says the City revoked it. We did find where she applied for a permit to repair the pool in 2010. The FOX 8 Defenders will work to get more information.
After Judge Bruno's ruling on this particular property, the City confirmed that Code Enforcement has added notices and hearings when it issues daily fines. Press Secretary for the Mayor LaTonya Norton in an email wrote, "Code Enforcement is considering all options to compel the owner to abate any violations."