This is the first in a three-part series. Read part two here and part three here.
When Rogers Griffin was named principal of Holy Family Catholic School, his orders were to close it. Enrollment at the 119-year-old school, tucked in the thick of Lafayette’s Fightinville neighborhood, had dwindled to just 75 students. It was hemorrhaging money. The diocese sent him in to shutter it “with dignity,” he says.
Twenty-three years later, Holy Family is expanding. Today the parochial school, which serves mostly disadvantaged children through a state scholarship program, has 258 students with plans to reach 400 in the next few years. The campus needs to grow, but it’s landlocked by the neighborhood around it.
In 2020, Holy Family acquired a pair of abandoned properties burdened with thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and fines. Though vacant for decades, by August the parcels will be the site of eight new classrooms, a gym and new administration offices. It’s a vital acquisition for the school’s growth, says Griffin, who grew up on Bienville Street down from the school. And it doubles as a neighborhood investment.
“That’s another focal point for us, not just increasing enrollment, but making this the center of the neighborhood,” Griffin says.
Adjudicated properties like the two acquired by Holy Family have piled up on the parish assessor rolls for decades, falling into blight and the de facto custody of Lafayette Consolidated Government. Today, LCG tracks more than 1,200 adjudicated properties in its system, the vast majority on Lafayettte’s Northside. In the Fightinville area alone, there are 78 adjudicated parcels as of Feb. 1, more than in Broussard, Scott and Youngsville combined.
But Lafayette is making progress in moving these properties back into productive use. Since 2018, when Lafayette created its process for “disposing” adjudicated properties through sale, transfer or donation, planning staff have processed applications for 177 parcels. Most of those applicants are adjacent landowners. And the numbers have ticked up year-by-year since the process was formalized, beginning with just 10 in 2018 and growing to 54 by 2021.
Still, Lafayette has a long way to go. And for those who live next to the properties, resolution can’t come fast enough.
Mary Helen Alexander has lived on St. Charles Street in McComb-Veazey for more than 50 years, and next to a vacant lot for almost 20. Heirs never claimed the family home after her neighbor died years ago. When the building was torn down, her nephew mowed the front half of the lot to keep it tidy until he passed away. She pesters the city to mow the back half, which it seldom does. Squatters have drifted in and out of the abandoned house on the other side of the lot. It’s been adjudicated since 2016.
“That’s been 20 years ago,” she says of the last time anyone lived next to her. “There are some children, and they have no interest in it. You could try to sell it or something. Now it belongs to the city.”
That’s a typical story for adjudicated properties: a death in the family, broken succession and no one to claim or care for an orphaned property. In many cases, heirs don’t realize they have a claim.
And it’s often the view among neighbors that city government takes ownership of the properties. But it doesn’t. Adjudication freezes up the title while debt from unpaid taxes and fines mount. A mix of high debt and broken lines of succession leaves them in limbo. Tax collectors want to get paid, but with the primary taxpayer long dead or otherwise out of the picture, they’ve got no one to collect from.
Moving the property is tricky. Without a clear line of ownership — what’s often called “clean title” — properties are without marketable value. Banks won’t mortgage them. Developers won’t touch them. Meanwhile, they fall further into disrepair while debt mounts.
“It’s just a bloody mess,” says Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux.
The two lots acquired by Holy Family — 139 South Bienville and 213 South Bienville — were buried under $30,000 in unpaid taxes and liens. Meanwhile, the properties’ market value was just $12,000. The lot at 139 South Bienville had been adjudicated since 1983, the other since 1989.
It’s difficult to track the volume, as properties flow in and out of adjudication when property owners pay their taxes or lapse, but there’s little doubt that the problem has gotten only worse in the last few decades. Comeaux recalls a few hundred landing on parish tax rolls when took office at the turn of the millennium. By that count, the number has likely more than doubled over the last 20 years.
Adjudicated properties are often vacant and abandoned buildings that add a layer of legal difficulty on top of tremendous social and public costs. Blight and vacancy are also associated with violent crime and decreased property value, which chokes off transfer of generational wealth. A longitudinal study of a Philadelphia program to reactivate abandoned spaces found a 40% reduction in violent crime over that same period.
One analysis estimated local governments spend between $233 and $1,700 annually per property on maintenance: cutting grass and boarding up or demolishing buildings. LCG assessed environmental fees, a cost that typically reflects grass cutting fees, between $135 and $705 on 213 South Bienville. If assessed on hundreds of properties, that could mean costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Read More Land of Opportunity
Lafayette’s pace of moving hundreds of orphaned and blighted properties back into commerce has some convinced LCG isn’t really trying.
Vacant and abandoned properties have metastasized in Lafayette. A robust redevelopment authority ought to be part of the solution, experts say.
Set against the scale and complexity of the problem, any movement is progress. State law carving a pathway for local governments to deal with orphaned properties was passed in 2008, but Lafayette didn’t adopt a disposition process until 2018. Attempts at local legislation were mired in a mix of council politics and apathy. Once settled, Lafayette created a process designed to emphasize local control, giving priority to redemption, then to adjacent landowners and down the line to public bid.
Nonprofit developers have begun to catch on to a provision that permits “donation” to qualified nonprofits. Habitat for Humanity has pioneered this approach with pocket neighborhoods in McComb-Veazey, working with LCG to pilot the nonprofit disposition process. Since then, Habitat has pursued properties in batches, essentially blazing a trail for how nonprofit developers of any scale will engage the program. Habitat has acquired 18 parcels, most in McComb and a few in the LaPlace/Fightinville area.
Habitat is seeking state funding to build seven houses on adjudicated properties. The organization’s efforts are mission-driven — focused almost exclusively on filling gaps in urban core neighborhoods — which helps justify the cost. Executive Director Melinda Taylor says the organization has spent $120,000 in legal fees.
“It’s a little bit below market [rate], but it’s not free,” Taylor says of the trade-off.
Those costs and the relative obscurity of LCG’s program have, so far, held back participation among most conventional developers. Tweaks to Lafayette’s ordinance permitting rental developments unlocked a new class of interest among developers.
Over the last year, Lafayette council’s approved applications from churches, community development housing organizations and for-profit developers who indicated plans to create new apartments, rental housing and multi-family developments.
Loosening up the rules might pick up the pace, but it risks loss of control for the neighborhoods and raises the specter of gentrification or bad actors.
“We’ve made it accessible to more people, which is good,” says McComb-Veazey Neighborhood Executive Vice President Tina Shelvin Bingham. “But we opened the can of worms without making sure there was enough dirt.”
The McComb-Veazey Neighborhood itself is a local pioneer in the space. The McComb Community House was a revitalized adjudicated property. Today, covid-permitting, the coterie holds community meetings there and regular weekend markets to sell produce from its farm. Building on its work with Habitat, McComb plans to use some grant funding to create a pilot redevelopment program, using its nonprofit status as an umbrella to obtain abandoned properties with the intent of working with developers based in the area to create more housing.
What gains have been made thus far have been on an ad-hoc basis. Taylor, who also chairs the Acadiana Housing Alliance, sees an opportunity to fill gaps in Lafayette’s constricted housing market. So far, the program has yet to produce much affordable housing.
But adding more housing, at any scale, is a welcome development, and Taylor views the fledgling process as part of the solution. Three years in, Lafayette is really only at the beginning.
“This has been under the radar,” Taylor says. “There is no real, publicly informed process. It’s kind of a free-for-all. My question is: When are we going to say we need some method to this madness, we need to invent some process to inform who gets these lots.”