The official motto of the Landrieu Administration’s blight eradication efforts should probably be: “We can’t do much, but we’ll do more of it!”
Case in point: A week ago, I read an Action Report from Bill Capo at WWL about a house in Central City that is nearly collapsing onto another. An entire wall has become detached. A couple of two-by-fours mounted between the homes is all that is preventing it from completely falling over.
The situation has been ongoing for several years. Capo interviewed Patricia Nelson, the owner of the adjacent home, who complained: ” I have asked the City time and time after to come out, and please try to help me, and they just keep on just ignoring me, and haven’t did anything to help me out.” Capo himself contacted the mayor’s office to notify them of the imminent danger posed, but nobody had responded as of a week later.
Shortly after this report came out, the New Orleans City Council passed a new law entitled the “Minimum Property Maintenance Code.” The legislation was proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu back in March as a part of a push to reduce the city’s stock of blighted housing. The measure, co-authored by Councilmembers Palmer, Head and Cantrell, provides comprehensive standards for the maintenance of all properties throughout the city.
Thus, in a city that will simply allow structures to fall over on one another, we’re now going to be regulating peeling paint, cracked sidewalks, adjacent litter, fences, and even the latching mechanisms on gates. We can’t enforce existing blight laws, but we’ve just passed a law that gives the city authority to nitpick various aspects of property maintenance.
This wouldn’t be quite so bad were it not for the fact that the ordinance is horribly overbroad. Some of the standards in the law are simply ridiculous. The City Council may not have noticed, but one part of the ordinance completely bans non-operational vehicles from being stored in Orleans Parish. A classic car enthusiast like myself is being told to move to Metairie. Heck, as it currently reads, this part of the law even applies to repair shops and junkyards.
Councilwoman Stacy Head seems to understand the problem with this, but downplays its significance, arguing that the law merely needs to be “tweaked.” “I want to be very clear that there are some other items that have not yet been resolved,” Head declared. “To the people who still have concerns, you are not alone. We all still have concerns. We are going to make a good product better and we look forward to your advice as we do that along the way.”
In much the same vein, Councilman James Gray argued that “[t]his ordinance can be a great thing for the city of New Orleans, but it also can be a terrible thing if abused by people who are put there to enforce it.”
My response to Ms. Head is that you shouldn’t vote for laws that have major flaws in the hopes that they’ll be fixed later. The ordinance should have been “tweaked” before the council voted on it. By approving laws that clearly haven’t been thought through, the council is abdicating its responsibilities to the voters in the name of appearing active and engaged. If it takes longer to pass a proper law, we can wait for that. We can’t afford more stupid laws; there are too many of them already.
On the other hand, Mr. Gray’s argument is essentially that the law’s overbreadth may not be a problem if it is handled well on the enforcement end, but that’s true for any law. Sure, if we had an all-powerful version of Plato’s “philosopher king,” we could simply have a law against “doing bad things” and take comfort in the fact that everything would come out peachy on the enforcement end. We are supposed to be circumspect with passing comprehensive new laws because we don’t have a philosopher king in charge, and even if we did, the next guy in office might not be such a paragon of virtue and good judgment.
And the truth is that I really don’t trust Mayor Landrieu to enforce this law fairly and equitably with the resources available, foregoing nitpicking in favor of major offenders. During his administration, I’ve seen too many trivial violations blow up into major issues, while too many major issues – such as a certain collapsing home in Central City – are never addressed at all.
Up until now the city has been operating off of a temporary code enforcement law enacted post-Katrina that only runs through August 31st. Thus, the city has had plenty of time to flesh out good legislation, yet inexplicably failed to do so. The Council will now probably extend the temporary law through October to allow time to fix the problems with the new ordinance.
Although there’s no need to start from scratch, there are more than just a handful of minor “tweaks” that need to be made here, and I’m doubtful that they’ll be accomplished by October. This is an area where the council should have set very basic minimums, but instead it indulged its usual impulse to push further than needed.
After all, in a city that often turns a blind eye to collapsing structures, it’s quite easy to push too far and turn well-intentioned legislation into an utter farce. That seems to be what has happened here.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.