Dec 162013
 

Owen Courreges

“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.

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  • Uptowner

    I really like the idea of revoking nonprofit (tax free) status as a penalty to those who allow their properties to rot, particularly those in viable submarkets, like this one. If this went on the open market, there’s a good chance a developer would scoop it up to make into apartments with ground floor retail, as long as zoning permits. These slumlords either need to be forced towards tax sale proceedings or get heavily fined to the point that their hand is forced to unload the property.

  • Sam

    “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.”

    I don’t always agree with you, often even, but you could not have phrased this opinion any better. Extremely accurate on this account

  • H. J. Bosworth JR.

    Excellent Article Owen!! Religious entities are not usually good neighbors. The exist to support the preacher and order – if there is one and have no substantial concern for neighborhoods. To them, neighbors should donate the adjacent properties and give $$ for that ticket for their castle in the sky. They probably should pay taxes on all their properties!!!! Especially the properties they own that are not actively used in their activities…

    • Owen Courrèges

      HJ,

      As I said, I’m not for eliminating tax exempt status for religious organizations, but just ensuring that they don’t abuse tax exempt status. I do agree, though, that many churches have given the impression that they don’t care about surrounding neighborhoods, especially here.

      • banks mcclintock

        Owen, I might point out that 1824 Sophie Wright is a legally separate property than the church itself (1148 Felicity) and contains no used buildings or legal use at all for that matter. By law that piece of property is to enjoy NO tax exempt status I believe. The fact that a non profit simply owns something (property) does not automatically make it tax exempt. It has to be USED as a place of worship or be in commerce as the same. Would this not be the direction some smart lawyer should approach.? What say you?

        • Owen Courrèges

          banks,

          It’s tax exempt because the church owns it; it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s how matters stand. The solution to the problem rests with our elected officials.

          • banks mcclintock

            Hey Owen I realize that is the perception but I have been specifically told by numerous city officials that realestate owned by tax exempt entities in New Orleans MUST be used for the tax exempt purpose. In this case church offices or worship. I bought an “alley” a number of years ago that was owned by a church and had to pay back taxes on it bc the alley was not used by or for church business. In the case of this piece on Sophie , it would appear to fall in the same category. It’s not in use and simply abuts something that is.

    • Craig

      “Religious entities are not usually good neighbors.”

      While true that some religious organizations build and behave in an exclusively self-interested manner, that’s a rather obnoxious claim that religious organizations are “usually” bad neighbors.

      • Athena

        Not really. It’s the same with schools. Churches and schools hog all the parking in their vicinity, generate loads of trash, and usually pick the most obnoxious times on the planet to repair things (with loud power tools of course) or do trash pick up for their commercial bins. Then they want to demolish perfectly good structures and homes for… surface parking. They make some of the worst neighbors around for those who live in the immediate vicinity. Very few exceptions. However, we NEED neighborhood churches and schools to have strong communities, so the key is better enforcement to address the offenses. And that’s the problem, the City just lets the problems fester and the neighborhood residents are left to stew about it.

  • Moses

    I already know of 2 blighted properties in West Carrollton neighborhood owned by non-profit entities that have not taken responsible measures to maintain them. It would be curious to know how many blighted properties are owned by non-profit entities in the city. I have an uncomfortable feeling that it is more than 3, substantially more. If this is the case, then I think Mr. Courreges’ suggestion that we consider finding a way to make tax exempt organization more responsible by making the process of revoking their status related to the blight of their properties.

  • Jackie Martello

    Great job Mr. Courreges. I have been saying this for years about The Archdiocese of New Orleans and their unfortunate church closure/real estate policies.

  • Patrick Ahern

    This building should be taken away from the church and sold at auction . The church should still be responsible for DBN fines . The HDLC has no teeth to enforce their rules . I am in the business and always get permits from The HDLC .

    • Van Howenstine

      Right on point. As the HDLC’s negative impact evolves, more folks are beginning to feel outrage. As a matter of fact, I took the HDLC to the LA Supreme Court, about 15 years ago, after they came to Algiers Point and halted prosperity by stomping on the rights of property owners. The HDLC actually paid me damages. Have you ever heard of a City Hall Agency actually paying damages for the harm they do? The City of NO v William Howenstine. Thank my lawsuit for your use of Hardi-board in the forbidden zones. I’ve been yelling from the rooftops for years. It’s so wonderful to see a well-written article describing my sentiments!
      Thanks Owen C.

  • Msrinno

    For too long religious organizations have operated rental property, commercial property, and owned property that is not directly related to a house of worship. Realize that we do not collect property taxes on the structures which would contribute to our schools, roads, and all other entities which had a property millage associated with it. I do not want my check to pay property taxes on the place where I sit worship God. For my church to have an apartment complex across the street and house who they feel they want, while I have to supplement the city’s budget because they do not contribute to the city’s coffers, but benefit from fire’ police, streets, is not a burden I feel I want to continue. Everybody pays their way. If the church believes it is their mission to have these ancillary properties, then let the congregation pay for the benefits they receive from my city. I do not want to help Tony’s church of Jesus Christ start expanding its property acquisition by not collecting property taxes.

    Furthermore, I said this at the city summit for citizens last month,’ our city Government has no problem hiring out of town companies or barely legal city agencies to run a traffic Camera program. When we hire an out-of-town company to F I NE blighted property owners and collect their money and then you’ll know that they are serious about like.

  • Fat Harry

    Thanks Owen. This is the BIGGEST problem facing the city. People have figured out how to get a better return on their real estate investments – create a non-profit entity to own the land. Go ask Erroll Williams – something like 60% of the properties in Orleans Parish are OFF the tax rolls. The rest of us pay for the city services for these “exempt” properties. It is a complete racket and needs to be exposed. At the very least, every property should be assessed some amount for basic police, fire, etc.

  • John Wettermark

    Owen, your gratuitous slam against the HDLC rings hollow. I urge you to educate yourself about what the HDLC does, along with it’s staff and volunteer architects to insure the integrity of our historic districts. Modern materials are indeed allowed in both historic and new buildings. I’m comfortable as an Architect and Developer in saying that the boom in construction of single family homes in the historic districts can be traced to the integrity of the architecture of those districts as a result of HDLC review; the review is similar to that of many cities in the U.S. and is invaluable in maintaining a major aspect of what makes our city special.

    • Owen Courrèges

      John,

      >>Modern materials are indeed allowed in both historic and new buildings.<<

      That's news to me. I own a historic home in a local historic district. I once tried to use a more durable, modern material (a cement mold) for column bases that were in a location prone to rot. I was told that the HDLC mandates original materials whenever possible an will not waive that requirement at the staff level. This was only about a year or so ago.

      I've also talked to other people who have had the same experience. People have told me about the HDLC trying to regulate paint color, when except for stucco and brick, paint color isn't within their purview. Others have had to fight for more durable roofing and siding materials that would protect the house far better and make little or no difference aesthetically. Perhaps they're gotten better in the very recent past, but I haven't seen nor heard of it.

      • John Wettermark

        I’m happy to know that this is news to you. Hearsay is rarely reliable and should not be a basis for slamming a valuable agency of which you know little about.

  • Owen Courrèges

    HStreetLandlord,

    I come about my dislike of the HDLC honestly. Read this previous columns for my problems with them:

    http://uptownmessenger.com/2011/08/owen-courreges-the-hidden-costs-of-blind-preservation/

    • HStreetLandlord

      I must admit that was an entirely reasonable and balanced column.

  • Owen Courrèges

    Deux,

    The rules are often too strict or downright irrational, as I laid out pretty clearly. Original materials are sometimes inferior or cost-ineffective and the rules should not require them except when they would make some aesthetic difference. Likewise, the “half round” gutter rule is a stupid, ahistorical fetish.

    Furthermore, forcing people to go before the whole commission is time consuming and deters people from making necessary renovations, or at even from consulting the HDLC at all. Besides, the commission is also pretty strict as well and rarely departs from the letter of the rules.

  • Deux amours

    Well, you’ll never know what luck you would have had at the Commission, and somewhere else you deny relying on stories heard from others. Your views on what are appropriate materials have been considered by experts, and standards have been set. Exceptions can be made, if justified, but you do need to ask. You are also confused about “new, modern” materials. I don’t think the Commission ever requires the use of antique material. The wood, gutters, and shingles that you believe the Commission should quit requiring are available new, and probably made in China. They only require that new materials be compatible with the original structure.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Deux,

      Obviously I wasn’t talking about using actual antique materials (something everybody else understood), so I’m going to chalk your suggestion up to pedantry.

      The bottom line is that I shouldn’t have to go before a full blown hearing to repair my own damn house. The use of a less expensive and more durable modern material (that makes no difference aesthetically) should not be a matter for the commission’s review. Some minor matters are already left at the staff level, and the staff is supposed to be trained in this. It makes it far too difficult to deal with the HDLC when any difference any materials, whether aesthetically relevant or not, has to go before the commission. Likewise, the use of a certain style of gutter that is twice as expensive should not be mandated; these houses normally were not even built with metal gutters.

      Furthermore, as I pointed out in my earlier column, the HDLC simply doesn’t have the resources to go after people for these types of issues, so the end result is that those who are affected are essentially voluntarily cooperating with the HDLC, This means you’re punishing the people who choose to “play by the rules” by making the rules stupid. It discredits the HDLC and makes it far more difficult to maintain historic properties, leading to less preservation overall. The HDLC doesn’t seem to care about keeping renovation costs low; thus, the law needs to be changed to force them to.

      And I don’t care that the rules were made by “experts.” Being a “expert” is not the same as being right, and I can research these issues as well anyone else.

      • Deux amours

        Well, you are entitled to your opinion, especially in your opinion column, but you should understand that many people prefer the standards of the HDLC to yours. Your self-confidence is admirable, but I doubt that you can research the issues related to historic preservation as well as architectural historians. Do you believe they can research legal issues as well as you do? I do believe that there is some body of expertise or accepted practices for historic structures that forms the basis for the HDLC rules, but I must admit that I don’t really know much about their adoption. Perhaps they were made up out of whole cloth after some binge at Miss Mae’s. In any event, did you complain about not winning the Mega-millions even though you bought no ticket?

        • Owen Courrèges

          Deux,

          >>Well, you are entitled to your opinion, especially in your opinion column, but you should understand that many people prefer the standards of the HDLC to yours.<>I do believe that there is some body of expertise or accepted practices for historic structures that forms the basis for the HDLC rules, but I must admit that I don’t really know much about their adoption.<>In any event, did you complain about not winning the Mega-millions even though you bought no ticket?<<

          No. Also, you need to be more clear what argument you're trying to make, because I don't see any credible analogy here.

          • Deux amours

            First, let me help you with the analogy. You didn’t ask the HDLC to rule in your favor when your out-of-guidelines application was rejected by Staff, and you didn’t buy a lottery ticket, I suspect your chances would have been better with the HDLC than the lottery, but without a ticket, your chances were zero with both. As for the specifics of guidelines, I think part of a well-prepared appeal would be some explanation by you as to why the established standard should be ignored in your case. I want the renovations in our historic districts to follow traditional practices with traditional materials. (Actually, antique materials are used when available in best practice) Your idea that a novice renovator (you’re not a contractor are you?) should be free to use cheaper materials and other shortcuts or anything else that works is completely antithetical to the very notion of historic preservation. Would you recommend this lax approach for the Vieux Carre?

          • Owen Courrèges

            You’re ridiculous and part of the problem. The idea that a simple, commonsense repair should require an expensive and time-consuming appeal to the HDLC is simply stupid. You don’t even have a credible defense of these absolutist rules, and many of them can, in fact, be addressed at the staff level. You’re knee-jerk in defending bureaucracy and don’t even attempt to justify their policies. Nothing you’re saying even scratches the surface of the arguments I’ve raised.

  • Moses

    I can see Hardi-board’s utilitarian use, from a distance. Perhaps it’s a necessary evil when faced with the escalating cost of renovating old houses. But the music is different – walking on Hardi-board is like a listening to a song with mistrummed chords – it just doesn’t sound right.