“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”
That’s apparently the motto of the First Spanish American Baptist Church (FSABC), which owns the dilapidated wood-frame building located at 1824 Sophie Wright Place in the Lower Garden District. Their latest application to demolish the structure was rejected this past Thursday by the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC).
1824 Sophie Wright is a relatively nondescript 19th century commercial structure. It was a sheet metal plant during World War II and later a bakery. The FSABC bought the building over 20 years ago and has intentionally permitted it to deteriorate, ostensibly to turn the land into a parking lot (which they would never get zoning approval for anyway).
“This is a common tactic,” HDLC Commissioner Alonzo Knox opined at the hearing. ”He very well knows what he’s doing. He’s allowing this building to demolish itself without putting his hands on it.”
“Slumlords like him, it probably should be taken away.”
Most of the time, owners of derelict properties have an incentive to maintain them because they have to pay property taxes. Alas, as a bona fide church, the FSABC is tax-exempt. Thus, even though it isn’t using the property as a church (or anything else), it receives all the benefits of city services without actually paying for them.
Meanwhile, neighbors suffer proximity to a structure that engenders all sorts of risks. Because the building is open to the elements, unmonitored, and unmaintained, it poses an immediate fire risk, a risk of spreading pests, and a risk of attracting criminals and vagrants.
Worse, this is actually by design. The FSABC has been chomping at the bit to demolish the structure, and every year the building deteriorates brings them one step closer to approval. Rhonda Lange of Demo Diva, representing the church, practically boasted to the HDLC: “You honestly just have two walls standing with no support.”
Eventually, the building will either burn or fall over, a welcome result to a contemptible slumlord.
The FSABC’s apparent role model was Rev. Moses S. Gordon, who notoriously failed to maintain Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church at the corner of Josephine and Prytania Streets following Hurricane Katrina. Owing to tax exempt status, Gordon allowed the church and a neighboring building to rot while he pushed for demolition.
I still live across from the empty lot that resulted the fire that consumed Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in January 2011. As I wrote in a letter to Uptown Messenger at that time, the congregation’s expressions of loss over the church amounted to little more than crocodile tears: “they allowed it to molder, and cannot be surprised that it burned down.”
“Because of their callous indifference to the building and the surrounding area,” I opined, “the church became infested with rats and became a magnet for vagrants.”
Is this where matters are heading with 1824 Sophie Wright? Is it just a matter of time before the building succumbs to the elements and a total lack of maintenance? It goes without saying that the building cannot hold out forever. It’s barely salvageable in its current state.
The only solution to the problem under current law is to push forward with a Sheriff’s sale based on existing fines for demolition by neglect and other violations of the maintenance code. However, that requires following through on enforcement, which isn’t exactly the city’s forte.
In the future, we need to start looking to better ways to prevent neglect and punish neglectful owners. One fix might be to repeal any tax exemptions for structures that are entirely unoccupied, or at least provide a process to revoke tax-exempt status for church properties fined for demolition by neglect. For too long church organizations have been taking advantage of tax-exempt status for properties that they haven’t utilized for years. It’s bad policy and needs to be reformed.
Although First Amendment issues often rear their heads when dealing with religious organizations, any revision to tax policy aimed at fighting blight would have an unassailably secular purpose. Nonprofit organizations merit favorable tax treatment; however, they don’t deserve to abuse the system simply by cloaking themselves in religion.
We also need to shift the focus of the law away from micromanagement of historic properties and towards fighting blight. The HDLC is a bureaucratic mess usually avoided by property owners. They’re unreasonable and counterproductive.
When the HDLC tells property owners that they can’t use modern, durable materials that are cheaper and make no difference aesthetically, they convey that the HDLC is working against the preservation of historic properties. They become a joke. Thus, when the HDLC turns around and expresses moral outrage at neglectful owners like the FSABC, it rings hollow.
The HDLC needs a mandate to focus on the fundamental aspects of preservation, not nitpick the ongoing maintenance of non-blighted structures.
If we had sane laws and were properly allocating resources, 1824 Sophie Wright would have already been sold to a more responsible owner, either by the FSABC or via a Sheriff’s sale. It certainly would not have been allowed to molder for decades before our very eyes.
However, that’s exactly what has happened. We all need to be asking why.
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.