WASHINGTON — Blighted and vacant homes continue to plague Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, new U.S. Census Bureau data released Monday show.
More than 65,000 homes that the 2005 storm damaged were still unfit for habitation in 2009, according to the bureau's 2009 American Housing Survey for the New Orleans Metropolitan Area.
About two-thirds of these units were headed for condemnation or demolition, but that legal process is slow, leaving the city littered with tens of thousands of unsafe, unsanitary dwellings.
Fortunately, the number of blighted buildings is decreasing steadily as homeowners get federal money to rebuild or rehabilitate their properties, said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a research organization.
Only about 44,000 blighted homes or lots were found in a data center report from October 2010. While the 2010 census counted nearly 48,000 vacant homes in the New Orleans area, Plyer said 41,000 of them were thought to be blighted and uninhabitable.
Despite the progress, the vacancy rate in the New Orleans metro area is 25 percent, one of the highest in the nation and up from 12 percent in 2000.
After peaking at nearly 628,000 residents in 1960, New Orleans has steadily lost population — nearly 141,000 residents since 2000 alone. The city's population stands at 343,829.
About 30,000 residents left between 2000 and 2005, while the rest — about 111,000 — departed after Hurricane Katrina, according to data center figures. This left thousands of unoccupied homes, and vacant commercial and institutional buildings as well.
Ridding the city of blighted homes is the number one challenge for New Orleans city leaders, who see them as a magnet for vermin, crime and homeless people.
Last October, a 16-year-old girl who was walking home from a school event was attacked and raped by a man who dragged her into a vacant building in the city's Lower 9th Ward neighborhood.
Devastated by flooding from Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward has recaptured only 24 percent of its pre-storm population.
A local housing development group is taking a novel approach to bringing residents back. The Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association is developing a community land trust to rebuild homes that were lost to the flood.
Using a concept known as "shared equity," the trust will buy land, then build and sell homes on the property while retaining ownership of the land. This cuts the purchase prices for homebuyers, who in essence lease the land that their homes are on.
The trust requires that when buyers sell their homes, they share most of the added equity with the trust, which uses it to help other low-income families buy homes.
The 2009 census survey found that more than four out of five area residents moved away and relocated two times after the storm. Though most of them eventually returned, 7 percent, or 31,500 metropolitan area households, don't consider themselves permanently settled even now.
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