HUD recommends demolishing St. John housing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 21, 2013

BY Kimberly Hopson

LAPLACE – A recent assessment of the St. John the Baptist Parish Housing Authority’s assets said the condition of the housing “at three of the authority’s four sites is such that it should be demolished,” an echo of the sentiments previously expressed by residents of the community and Housing Authority staff.
Executive Director Trina Henderson announced that Econometrica Inc., a private research and management consulting firm, had visited the properties in July for the assessment.The firm submitted its report in August and concluded in its summary that the best option for the agency would be to acquire Housing Choice Vouchers for existing occupants to relocate temporarily. The offending units could then be demolished while plans for mixed-income replacement housing are developed.
Many apartments at the LaPlace, Reserve and Edgard sites sustained damage from Hurricane Isaac in 2012 and are currently out of service, creating a shortage of public housing in the parish. According to the assessment, a study conducted by Perez APC in Feburary estimated the cost of rehabbing the units at $11,000 per unit at the LaPlace site. The cost was listed between $17,000 and $18,000 per unit at the Reserve and Edgard sites.
Given the Housing Authority’s current state of finances, however, rehabbing the units may not be a practical option.
Econometrica recommended demolition but reallzed another major impediment to the process: the four housing sites are located in different school districts, and relocating residents while demolition is underway would be disruptive for the families. According to the report, St. John Parish has enough available housing for rent to provide for all of the tenants in question, after acquiring the housing vouchers. The research firm also noted that the amount of available housing in the parish would fluctuate.
Henderson said she felt the assessment was fair and thorough.
Commissioner Iona Holloway was also pleased to hear about report, saying it was nice for the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development administrators to finally “see what we see” after two years of struggling with the board.
She added she would like to see a mockup of the proposed mixed-income housing to help get the public behind the project.
“Until people see it, they don’t have that vision. We have to get the residents to buy into this forward thrust. Otherwise, they can be our best ally or our worst enemy,” said Holloway.
The biggest impediment to any progress with the housing units is funding — the St. John Housing Authority is still waiting for money from its mother agency before it can move forward with any changes.
Henderson said following the suggested course of action would be a process. She went on to say that HUD’s involvement in the assessment was a good sign that the agency was finally moving forward.
“It’s going to take not only us doing our part, but we have to engage our residents as well. We need to get total community involvement. That’s going to be a critical point in us being able to say we want to provide a better way of living for everyone,” said Henderson.
Commissioner Art Smith expressed an opposing opinion, with which Henderson also agreed.
“All that’s fine and dandy, but we’ve gone through this before. The condition of this property didn’t just happen overnight, and HUD’s been knowing this. Let’s not let them off the hook too easy by saying they’re there with us. They’ve been there with us, but they haven’t done anything,” he said.