Gordon Plaza residents to receive moving expenses to aid relocation, but hurdles remain
To supplement the city’s offers to buy out Gordon Plaza residents, New Orleans City Council created a fund to help with any moving costs associated with relocation during its meeting Thursday.
But where the money will come from – and how much residents will be eligible for – remain open questions.
Councilmember JP Morrell, who drafted the ordinance, said that as the city works through its current budget season, money can be allocated to the newly created Gordon Plaza Environmental Equity Relocation Assistance Fund. Morrell said the council will wait to secure the funding before creating a framework.
“When you create a fund to receive money, once money is identified then you can come back and put limits on the fund,” Morrell said during Thursday’s meeting. “It’s a first step in a process.”
The new ordinance passed in a 6-0 vote. It comes after months of heated debate between Gordon Plaza residents, the City Council and the Cantrell administration over how much to pay to move residents off of the hazardous site of a retired landfill.
The city plans to convert the former Agriculture Street landfill site into a renewable energy park to power a Sewerage and Water Board pump station nearby.
In October, the city’s first public buyout offer didn’t include money to cover the cost of moving into a new home – something residents have called nonnegotiable. So far, the city has sent out eight offer letters, and one has been accepted despite the lack of relocation assistance, City of New Orleans Press Secretary John Lawson said Thursday.
An analysis done by two Tulane University professors and a New Orleans realtor in December on the residents’ behalf, provided a preliminary estimate of $25,000 for relocation costs after conversations with state environmental groups familiar with the expense associated with climate buyouts.
The relocation fund would provide money separately from the city’s buyout offer, but Morrell has said he plans to have the two work in tandem so residents can access the moving assistance when they receive the buyout offer from the city.
“We’ll do our best as a council to make sure there’s synergy,” he said during Monday’s Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting.
During that meeting, New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano said the Cantrell administration is on board with the idea of the fund. The execution, however, could depend on determing whether the new fund has any impact on the litigation against the city over the thousands of people exposed to the landfill since the 1980s.
“Working through that legal question is the only thing the administration and the council have to make sure we’re shored up on so that we don’t open the city up to other liability,” Montano said Monday.
Located in the Desire neighborhood, Gordon Plaza is the last populated neighborhood on the former site of the Agriculture Street landfill, home to 67 properties. The area once hosted a public housing development called Press Park, a senior housing complex and an elementary school that were all shut down after Hurricane Katrina.
In July, the Orleans Civil District Court judge ruled in favor of 5,000 residents named in a class action lawsuit against the City of New Orleans, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board. The judge said the residents were entitled to $75.3 million for emotional distress and property damage, but the city has yet to pay up.
The vote also came one day after the appraiser hired by the city to value homes was asked to respond to a letter detailing potential flaws in his appraisal of a 2,898-square-foot home in Gordon Plaza. The letter came at the request of Gordon Plaza residents, though the group said the evaluation was done for free.
It wasn’t an official review of the appraisal; instead, the company aimed to provide topline guidance on whether the appraisal aligned with state and federal standards.
The letter – crafted by ARC Appraisers, an appraisal review company – cited shortcomings in New Orleans appraiser Jim Thorns’ method for valuing the house. Thorns had selected three recently sold homes in two other predominantly Black neighborhoods nearby, Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods, to determine the Gordon Plaza home’s value had it not been built on soil laced with hazardous chemicals.
ARC Appraisers’ letter noted that the houses used for comparison were substantially smaller than the Gordon Plaza house and located in a higher-risk flood zone. It also found several potential violations of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice – the standard for all appraisals for federally-related real estate transactions – in part due to the use of outdated forms and methods.
Thorns had yet to respond to the concerns laid out in the letter on Thursday, missing the Wednesday deadline. On Thursday morning, he told WWNO he was still working on his response and didn’t plan to comment publicly until he had sent it to the Gordon Plaza Task Force.
The Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc. – a community advocacy group – planned to send Thorns a list of residents ready for an appraisal on Wednesday. Instead, the group will withhold the list until they receive a written statement regarding changes to future appraisals, according to a media release Thursday.
They also called for the council to identify a source for money to place in the relocation assistance fund.
The next Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 11. At 1 p.m.