Alexander Advocates Land Reform in Post-Katrina Louisiana

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Frank S. Alexander

By Stacey Harwell

The winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina have stirred up another much-needed clean-up: Louisiana land-use laws, says PersonFrank S. Alexander, Emory University professor of law and founding director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR).

“The trilogy of hurricanes in the fall of 2005 was, unfortunately, only the first of the storms that dramatically reshaped the landscape of Louisiana,” said Alexander. “A second major storm hit the state and this time altered not the geographic landscape but its legal landscape, with equally far reaching results.”

Alexander studied the legal aftermath of the Louisiana hurricanes while serving as a Visiting Fellow with the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University last fall. His work served as the basis for new “abandoned property” legislation currently being considered by the Louisiana legislature. He also will publish a paper discussing the multiple storms -- natural and political -- that affected southern Louisiana post-Katrina in the Loyola Law Review (Vol. 53, Winter 2007).

A national expert in land bank authorities, affordable housing, urban redevelopment, and state and local government, Alexander directs the CSLR project on "Affordable Housing and Community Development." He is frequently called upon by lawmakers at state and federal levels to develop new legislation on these issues, most recently helping draft improved mortgage legislation in Georgia, and he has been asked to testify before the U.S. Congress on the current national mortgage crisis. Alexander’s work also has led to real estate reform in Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Jacksonville, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina and other cities. He has written widely on these themes, including Land Bank Authorities: A Guide for the Creation and Operation of Local Land Banks; Renewing Public Assets for Community Development; Housing Trust Funds for Local Governments in Georgia;  A City for All: Report of the Gentrification Task Force of the Atlanta City Council; and Renewing Public Assets for Community Development. A regular contributor to work on these topics at the Brookings Institution and at universities nationwide, Alexander is lecturing at New York University this spring.

In the Loyola law journal article, “Louisiana Land Reform in the Storms’ Aftermath,” Alexander calls the state to action: “Just as Louisiana has responded dramatically and courageously to address the human costs of the first storms, now is the propitious moment for the state to use the second storm as a catalyst for legal reform in the laws governing vacant, abandoned, substandard, and tax delinquent properties.”

The muddied world of Louisiana land law, especially regarding “blighted properties,” is what Alexander calls “the epitome of disjointed and disconnected statutes, with internal cross-references, yet inconsistent definitions.”

Each session of legislature since the 1970s tried to fix the problem of blighted properties, but Alexander finds that had the “cumulative effect of periodically placing new types of bandages on the same wound – by placing the new bandage on top of the old – and never cleaning out the wound itself.”

Before the hurricanes hit, New Orleans already had major land use problems -- more than 27,000 units were listed as vacant in the year 2000. That number skyrocketed to 100,000 plus after the storms. In addition to the vacated properties, New Orleans had to decide what to do with 1.2 million housing units damaged by the storms.

To match the excess inventories of vacant, abandoned, and often tax delinquent properties with the rapidly shifting needs for residential properties, Alexander identifies multiple strategies. He recommends the local governments significantly increase their enforcement of updated housing and building codes, and that the state legislature enact a dramatic overhaul of existing state statutes on “adjudicated properties” – formerly tax delinquent properties that are now owned by local governments.  He also focuses on the need to reevaluate the 2006 state constitutional amendments limiting expropriation (eminent domain) – the “second storm” to alter the Louisiana landscape.  And, Alexander urges local redevelopment authorities to facilitate the conversion of blighted and abandoned properties into productive use.

“Storms reveal our weakest points,” Alexander said. “Louisiana has been hit by two storms which together lay bare the inefficient and ineffective structures for confronting large inventories of abandoned, substandard, and often tax delinquent property. Such storms also present a new clarity of vision on the avenues for change.”

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