Even a fast government can be too slow for the real world. In recent years, the number of orphaned properties, de facto wards of Lafayette Consolidated Government, has reached more than 1,500, some abandoned for decades and buried under a mountain of tax debt. LCG has begun to chip away at the problem, but some see a lack of urgency. The process is painstaking and costly.
That’s a feature, not a bug.
“It’s onerous, it’s time consuming, it’s expensive, but it’s necessary,” says Ryan Goudelocke, the assistant city-parish attorney and legal architect of LCG’s disposition process.
The system of exhaustive checks that paces Lafayette’s disposition process, however, is designed to prevent properties from lapsing back into adjudication, Goudelocke says, and wipe away any lingering doubt that the title might later be disputed. Clean title is everything, if the goal is investment. Better right than never.
“We wanted to do as much as we could to deliver title with as much clarity as we could to enhance the likelihood the properties we dispose stay out of adjudication and, more important, they stay in use,” Goudelocke explains.
To that end, LCG’s ordinance requires applicants to run all the traps they can to smoke out potential claims to the title.
If an owner doesn’t come forward, LCG rolls out four methods of “disposition,” giving preference to adjacent landowners, who maintain the property for one year and can buy it at a lower cost, and nonprofits, which can acquire it by donation. Everyone else, including commercial developers big and small, has to buy them either through public auction, bid or an arm’s-length transfer.
Most of the 177 properties returned to productive use have been to nonprofits and adjacent landowners. Few commercial developers or individuals have come forward. Meanwhile, the properties sit, and skepticism creeps.
Erica Fox, a real estate developer and co-founder of indigenous arts shop Attakapas Collective, has unsuccessfully targeted a few properties in the last couple of years. Going through the disposition ringer and coming out with nothing has often left her discouraged. Fox spent time in New Orleans, where she observed a faster and easier process, managed by the firm CivicSource, which runs an online auction system on New Orleans’ behalf.
“When you’re just a normal person off the street it’s a little bit more difficult,” Fox says. “I didn’t have a nonprofit, and I didn’t live next door to an existing property. It’s a lot of legwork for one person.”
That many communities offload disposition to other organizations is itself something that sets Lafayette’s process apart, at least in Louisiana.
“The biggest difference is we rolled our own, and we do it ourselves,” Goudelocke says.
Most properties are abandoned, with no clear line of succession. To walk away with free and clear ownership, applicants have to run down every possible lead to quiet any possible legal claim. Those requirements are defined by state law, but Lafayette’s ordinance also requires that applicants post a sign on the property signaling their intent to acquire it. Again, that serves two purposes: one, thoroughly quieting title and, two, involving the neighborhood.
All of that letter writing and legal research racks up thousands of dollars in legal fees quickly. It’s not uncommon for bills to exceed the property’s marketable value. And applicants take it on faith: At any point during the noticing period — either 60 days for properties that have been adjudicated for five years or six months for those adjudicated for less — someone could come out of the fog and claim the property. In other words, the system is high risk, low reward.
“The numbers just don’t make sense,” says R.J. Fonseca, one of the few attorneys to take on work with adjudicated properties. Fonseca helped developer Terrica Lynn Smith broker a deal to unlock 53 adjudicated parcels, the remains of a bankrupted subdivision project, in an arm’s-length transaction to create Madeline Cove. The project is something of an anomaly. Entire developments don’t fall into adjudication very often. And the original land owners participated actively in the deal, transferring the title clear as day.
Still, running the gamut of every tax collector who had a stake in the languished development’s $140,000-plus in tax liens took two years of meetings and $20,000 in legal bills. It was a big effort that required active participation from LCG. Smith credits the Robideaux administration with stewarding the project.
In November, Smith sold the first Madeline Cove home. She cried.
“It was very emotional, for me, because it’s just been hell, to be honest, the past two years of my life had been hell,” she says.
Later, she looked at another property across University Avenue from Madeline Cove, tucked behind the Bridge Ministry School. Her back-of-the-napkin math put legal fees at $10,000, much more than the property was worth. She walked away.
“Primarily it’s set up for the neighbors and then nonprofits because those are the two parties that aren’t having to spend a whole lot of money on the front end,” Fonseca says.
Is that such a bad thing? Maybe not. The framers of Lafayette’s disposition process say that’s by design. Former City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux worked for years with Goudelocke to craft a program that would protect neighborhoods from gentrification. In that time, LCG has batted away interest from the third-party brokers who have hastened sale of properties in other communities. For Boudreaux, LCG’s disposition process isn’t the problem; it’s a lack of priorities.
“Resources were supposed to be put into it,” Boudreaux says. “By now, the process should have been down the road and wide open.”
To some extent, the process is further down the road. The pace has picked up, thanks in part to recent changes in the ordinance. In 2021, the Guillory administration and council members lifted prohibitions on rental properties, unlocking interest from community housing development organizations and some commercial developers. The change included provisions that subject landlords to code inspection, aimed at warding away slumlords.
But a key bottleneck remains: LCG has one person on staff responsible for processing applications. Over and over, applicants and developers interviewed for this story highlighted that pain point. Other communities deploy external agencies like land banks and redevelopment authorities with millions in assets to take on some of the legal risk and throw more manpower at the problem. In Lafayette, there’s Kirk Trahan.
A fully staffed and resourced redevelopment authority could do the trick by taking on the costly legal work and prepping properties for disposition. Lafayette has one on the books that never got off the ground and became a political football in 2021.
Or maybe additional planning staff is what’s needed here. City Councilman Glenn Lazard says there are “some discussions” about addressing staff capacity, including a move to bring on more environmental quality inspectors. Mary Sliman, Lafayette’s planning director, says the planning staff is “appropriately staffed” to manage the volume of applications, arguing a redevelopment authority would be a better vehicle for dealing with a more “aggressive strategy.”
But is an aggressive strategy what Lafayette really wants? That much is unclear. Some fear uncorking the bottle too fast could yield gentrification if mailbox LLCs scoop up properties by the dozen and sprout condo developments that price out the neighborhood.
That is a legitimate concern, and one forestalled by Lafayette’s current approach, but at what cost, some locals wonder.
“Sometimes we’re afraid of things that aren’t really reality,” says Erica Fox. “But if they’re coming in to improve our city … why not?”