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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Empty Houses, Empty City

Mayor Nagin continues to focus on the wrong things. As staunchly as I support the fundamental concept of business and industry at the root of economic success, New Orleans is not in a position to lure them. Nagin seems to be in a snit about the loss of the gambling proposal, but I'm relieved the idea is falling away. As I wrote another time, it was a solution to the wrong problem.

On the surface, it might seem that the major obstacle hindering a return to vitality for the city is rooted in the lack of housing. One can’t start businesses without employees. One can’t work without a place to live. Much of the city was flooded and destroyed. Ergo...

But in fact, there are places to live. Homeowners with undamaged (or minimally damaged) properties were hopeful, immediately after Katrina, that they would not only sell their homes easily, they could demand – and get – a premium price. Turns out to be not quite that way.

According to an article in NOLA.com today, the opposite is actually true. There are tons of houses on the market… but nobody is shopping.

Norman Inman, president of Coldwell Banker TEC Realtors, with offices in several areas of the metropolitan area, agreed. "The New Orleans market is just totally dead. I'm not aware of anything going on right now."
The article optimistically speculates that it’s just a matter of time – that people are waiting to come back until the schools are back up and running:

Several real estate experts expect that the market won't be established until more New Orleanians return, which may not happen until displaced families with children pull their children from schools outside the metro area. And that may well not be until the first of the year or thereafter.
While that may be true for many, I’m skeptical of schools as a major lure for return. Had New Orleans been a less dysfunctional city, people might be pushing harder to come back. As it happens, the Big Easy was a very hard place in some ways. In spite of all its charm and neighborhood-centric bonds, the fundamental quality of life for most of its citizens was pathetic. There were good reasons why those who could afford to do so moved out of Orleans Parish, or sent their children to private school.

The people who left, initially thinking it would be temporary, are discovering that the rest of the country doesn’t necessarily live that way. The Katrina exodus is showing people that their children can get a decent public education – just not in New Orleans. They can earn a decent wage – elsewhere. That crime does not have to control neighborhoods – if there are adequate numbers of well-trained police (as other cities demand and receive).

Mayor Nagin seems to think that business is going to be enough to bring people back. To date, I’ve heard nothing about what they’re going to do to fix the underlying mess the city’s foundation rested on, and until that comes fully into focus, it's hard to see why any entity – human or economic – would willingly choose to give up newly-found opportunity, safety, and education, to come back to the same old problems.

There’s been a lot of heated discussion about whether New Orleans will be “the same”. People are worried that the city will be “more affluent” and “white”. Frankly, unless city officials get focused on the broken social infrastructure, the only thing that will be lost is the unique culture that has existed for hundreds of years. The poverty, low wages, and social stagnation will simply be repeated until the next storm comes through.