In August 2021, five years from the last time its board met, the North Lafayette Redevelopment Authority became the latest flashpoint between Mayor-President Josh Guillory and the Lafayette City Council. Haggling over $250,000 in funding for the mothballed organization made for an unusual political conflict, pitting the council’s two Black councilmen against a vocal protest led by Black community advocates aligned with the mayor-president who saw in the NLRA’s revival a chance to inject some public investment into neglected neighborhoods.
“Right now, you have the community, [I’m] not saying divided, but just about divided. You know that,” Councilman Pat Lewis said at the time, just before the episode resolved with a whimper.
The council was poised to challenge a veto Guillory used to restore the NLRA’s funding in the final budget. But it was a moot point. LCG had not followed proper amending procedure. The matter died. A shell until only recently, the NLRA again faded away.
Lafayette has not, in earnest, had a productive redevelopment authority. At one time, a board of seven people ran the NLRA, but it never really got off the ground as members resigned and funding failed to arrive.
Meanwhile, vacant and abandoned properties have metastasized in Lafayette. LCG has chipped away at the problem since rolling out a local process for disposing them to neighbors, nonprofits and developers in 2018. Blight and abandonment are universal problems, and redevelopment authorities, some experts say, are important vehicles for restoring neighborhoods and even preventing properties from falling into adjudication in the first place. To the extent that Lafayette wants to get serious about dealing with its own blight problem, a robust redevelopment authority ought to be part of the solution, they say.
As of March 30, Lafayette has 1,244 adjudicated properties, defined as properties with unpaid tax bills that don’t sell at a tax sale. It’s a class of tax delinquency unique to Louisiana sourced in 19th century legal theory that today results in “deterioration, blight and decay,” according to housing and property law expert Frank Alexander. Intended to protect property rights, in practice it protects blight.
Louisiana is one of the very few states that guarantees property owners the right to reclaim an abandoned property three years from the date of an unsuccessful tax sale. Thus, hundreds of abandoned properties stay abandoned and suffocate mostly Black neighborhoods for decades at a time. It’s not uncommon in Lafayette to find properties languishing in adjudication for 20 or more years.
“Vacant and abandoned property is not a victimless crime. It imposes significant harms on the neighborhood and the government,” Alexander says. “The simple question is how long should the community tolerate that?”
Dispensing of Louisiana’s peculiar class of legal blight requires a change in state law, and comprehensive reform has been elusive. But after Hurricane Katrina, legislators enabled parishes and municipalities to create redevelopment authorities as a means of tackling unmet housing needs for the Katrina diaspora. In 2008, Lafayette was among the parishes to copy legislation that set up redevelopment authorities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, later branded Build Baton Rouge.
The fight between the administration and City Council 13 years later over the NLRA was spurred by proposed state legislation to reconstitute the agency, in part to rewrite appointment powers to accommodate Lafayette’s split councils. The update expanded the NLRA’s boundaries to cover all of Lafayette Parish, instead of its current footprint which includes only North Lafayette and cuts out Downtown. A key ingredient in the council showdown, the amendment would have also stripped Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s appointment power.
Redevelopment authorities have broad powers. They can levy sales and property taxes, take on debt, coordinate with public agencies, sell and lease land, and jump the line at tax sales, among other powers. Often combined with land banks — or acting as land banks themselves — they’re designed to facilitate investment where private developers won’t go, what LSU law professor and former Build Baton Rouge CEO Chris Tyson calls “anti-markets.”
Since launch, the authority in Baton Rouge has had mixed success, nearly running out of money and falling into a swirl of controversy under prior Director Walter Monsour, who faced accusations of ethical misconduct and resigned.
Later rebranded Build Baton Rouge, the agency reset and took on a bigger role under Tyson. He staffed the authority with $500,000 from city-parish government in his first two years, an investment that grew to $800,000 in Tyson’s last two years on the job. City Hall also contracted Build Baton Rouge to run its community development office, which had previously been singled out by the federal government for noncompliance.
The agency has had some headline grabbing announcements, much of that driven through HUD programs funded on its community development side. Build Baton Rouge helped secure a $29 million HUD grant to revitalize public housing in the Ardendale neighborhood. It partnered with Capital Area Transit System to win a $50 million grant to build the first bus rapid transit system in Louisiana. Assembling adjudicated properties is a big part of Build’s playbook for a master plan to transform Plank Road, a project touted in national headlines as a model of racially equitable reinvestment. The agency has also cleared title on some 20 acres of adjudicated properties.
No doubt, blight continues to plague much of the Capital City. Even with budgeted support, funding has been a struggle. To stock its land bank, Build leveraged a line of credit from a public financing authority. A 2015 business plan for the agency suggested a healthy redevelopment authority would require between $1.5 million and $4.5 million. That never materialized.
“We’re not quite there in Baton Rouge,” Tyson says.
In other words, Baton Rouge has itself only chipped away at a problem decades in the making, but the ambition of Plank Road, framed as a “catalytic” investment, is large.
There is, however, short-cycle work to be done, according to Alexander.
And Lafayette has made progress there since implementing a disposition process making it somewhat easier for neighbors to take back adjudicated property. Small ball can stack up wins, Alexander says, and to some extent Lafayette is checking boxes on his list of recommendations. Chief among his messages is this: Communities need to work to prevent adjudication in the first place.
But few communities, if any, wield what Alexander says is redevelopment authorities’ most powerful tool. They can stop adjudication all together by tendering credit bids — in essence a no-cost transaction — at tax auctions. Doing so diverts the property from the required three-year noticing period required in adjudication and shortens the lifespan that the title sits on a shelf, uninsurable and untouchable for most developers. The catch is the authority holds the title, meaning it’s responsible for maintaining the property, which most governments actively avoid. Baton Rouge, aggressive as it is, has not taken Alexander’s advice. And, without an active redevelopment authority, it doesn’t look like Lafayette is there either.
“It’s great if you’re ready for the redevelopment authority to lose money. That’s OK if that’s intentional,” says LCG assistant city-parish attorney Ryan Goudelocke, who’s helped shape local laws dealing with adjudication. “Redevelopment authorities in other states are intentionally set up to lose money because they take on the properties nobody wants.”
But there are other ways of dealing with the problem on the front end. Alexander stresses code enforcement as an important off ramp. Compelling property owners to clean up their messes can mop up problem properties and prevent the descent into blight and abandonment, which often ends in adjudication.
“The question is: How long should that property be allowed to hurt the neighborhood? The simplest position is to say you must clean up your property,” Alexander says.
And Lafayette has become more forceful in that respect. In 2021, LCG diverted zoning, property and environmental complaints from City Court to an administrative court called the Adjudication Bureau. Modeled on a similar program in New Orleans, LCG’s codes have more teeth because they include the threat of a hearing and fines, says LCG Community Development and Planning Director Mary Sliman. LCG has also pushed more property owners to fix problem properties.
“It gives constituents and people in the neighborhood the ability to participate in the process and to see something come to fruition,” Sliman says.
Two apartment complexes, including Himbola Manor where residents suffered caving roofs, will be brought up to housing codes established to protect living standards. Several junk yards on Lafayette’s Northside have been cleaned up.
Altogether, Sliman reported voluntary compliance in 81 cases in 2021, a noticeable increase.
LCG is moving to invest more in enforcement. This year, the council approved funding more code enforcement staff to keep up with increasing demand.
While not dealing directly with adjudicated properties, the adjudication bureau, in its own way, attacks disinvestment. Blight and abandonment are associated with increased rates of violent crime. A lack of affordable housing is a systemic problem in Lafayette Parish and around the country, and it’s stacked up against rising housing costs. Liberating adjudicated parcels, or preventing them altogether, hacks at a much more daunting social problem.
“The predominant approach to these challenges has been policing and criminal justice,” Tyson says. “We haven’t really invested in affordable housing, like we need to invest in it. We haven’t invested in small urban businesses at the level and scale that we need to. So the problems like our adjudicated property issue are not fully understood, and we don’t connect them to the outcomes that we want to see. We don’t identify these issues as a stumbling block in our ability to achieve the outcomes that we all agree or at least we rhetorically say that we want to see happen.”
The flare-up over the North Lafayette Redevelopment Authority ultimately fizzled. No new legislation has appeared on the docket for the 2022 legislative session. Last year, State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux punted discussion of reviving the body until after a revitalization plan is completed by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. That remains the current state of affairs.
“I don’t think moving the chairs around on the Titanic will change anything,” he said back then about restocking the defunct agency. “It still won’t accomplish anything.”
Meanwhile, locals continue to struggle with what Tyson calls the “consequences of a century of racialized urbanism.” Transformative investment may be the ambition, but for many a leg up is dealing with the overgrown property next door.