Landmark requirements raise rebuilding costs for New Orleans homeowners; gov’t help is scarce

Published 3:32 pm Thursday, June 14, 2007

Kelvin Hewitt began pounding nails into his 140-year-old home just weeks after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina.

He soon realized the city required him to go far beyond basic repairs and restore his one-story shotgun house to the full gingerbread aesthetics of the historic Holy Cross neighborhood — at a cost of $150,000.

“I want to preserve the house as much as possible so it will be here for another 140 years,” he said. “But it really doesn’t make too much sense for me to have all the historical features of the house and not have electricity, not have plumbing, not have Sheetrock, or plaster on the walls.”

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Hewitt’s home in the Lower 9th Ward is among 16,000 properties in 13 neighborhoods that must be rebuilt according to strict standards established by the New Orleans Historic Districts Landmarks Commission. The commission’s costly requirements have raised questions about whether the rules hurt lower-income property owners.

“Everything in a designated historic district has to undergo an extra layer of scrutiny, and discussion and review,” said Pam Dashielle, president of the Holy Cross Civic Association.

In New Orleans, many of the most heavily damaged buildings were Creole cottages and shotgun homes in historically working-class areas.

“New Orleans has more homes showing the breadth of our heritage, people of all classes and races, than any American city,” said Anthony Tung, a former New York City landmarks commissioner and author who has toured the city twice since Katrina.

“I found Holy Cross to be heartbreaking,” he added. “What I saw were houses that clearly were not extremely costly, but houses in which people might have their life savings invested.”

Landmarks commission Chairman Jesse LeBlanc said history is identity in New Orleans, and softening regulations is a slippery slope. The commission has issued 336 orders to stop construction work since Katrina.

“We will not change our guidelines, but we work with the homeowner,” he said.

The commission has 21,000 words of regulations that dictate construction nearly down to the screws. “Shutters shall be hung on hinges of the proper type and design. Once this requirement has been satisfied, shutters may be fixed in the closed position or held in open position with appropriate hardware,” reads one section.

Exactly what hardware is permitted goes unexplained. “Many modern ‘reproduction’ hinges do not accurately reproduce the types that they attempt to imitate,” it reads. “The design and use of hardware should adhere closely to other original examples.”

The problem, residents said, is that the vague regulations make it difficult to plan a reconstruction budget, let alone meet one. Some gamble by not consulting the commission, then hope its single field inspector will not visit. If they are caught, they face fines up to $500 a day.

The commission wants to hire a second field inspector and overhaul the regulations to add drawings of specific permitted materials. The agency has struggled to find a job candidate willing to move to New Orleans, and its small staff has no time to formulate clearer rules.

Adding to homeowners’ woes is a shortage of government assistance.

Louisiana suffered heavy damage to about 9,000 historic buildings, compared with 1,500 buildings in Mississippi. Congress granted Louisiana $22.5 million in historic restoration funding. Mississippi got $27 million.

Louisiana officials said they were dismayed by the disparity. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, blamed party politics that favored Republican-controlled Mississippi.

“This is just another example of Louisiana being shortchanged in hurricane recovery,” Landrieu said. “Damage and historical and cultural significance should be the only measures for what is appropriated.”

A spokesman for Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi pointed to buildings leveled along that state’s coast, including the library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“There wasn’t any political aspect to it, the damage was visible,” spokesman Nick Simpson said.

Back in the Holy Cross neighborhood, Hewitt’s house is filled with tools, do-it-yourself books and flood debris, including street signs that once topped a pole on his corner of Dauphine and Reynes.

Hewitt, 38, received a $43,500 federal preservation grant and $12,000 in insurance money, but he will need much more to complete the repairs required by the commission. He recently combed secondhand shops specializing in materials from the 1800s and found a pair of commission-approved shutters.

“I’ll sleep next to my hammer drill if I have to,” he said. “There’s a story in this house, and whether it happened over a hundred years ago, or it’s happening now, it has to keep being told. It’s New Orleans culture and I’m just a page in the book.”