Gordon Plaza residents advocate for fair prices in city buy backs

Signs dot the Gordon Plaza neighborhood, where residents have advocated they receive a fair price while selling their homes to the City of New Orleans. The neighborhood was built four decades ago atop a toxic dump.

A New Orleans truck driver who wanted to get into the real-estate business by starting with something cheap.

An air conditioning and heating company owner who lives in Atlanta.

A retired police officer who paid fire-sale prices for three deteriorating homes, which remain blighted but are now valued at $475,000.

All are among those now benefiting from the city of New Orleans’ $35 million plan to buy out owners of Gordon Plaza, the largely Black neighborhood built four decades ago atop a toxic dump.

City Hall has closed on a handful of sales after sending a round of offers last month. The city agreed to purchase properties in the neighborhood through appraisals that ignore the area’s environmental hazards, with the hope that residents will then be able to afford homes in neighborhoods that aren’t contaminated.

Those appraisals put the median price of a Gordon Plaza home at $335,000, though residents have said the figures should be higher. On the open market, Gordon Plaza properties in recent years have gone for as little as $55,000.

What the city ought to pay in each transaction remains a thorny question, though officials have granted numerous concessions after years of back-and-forth with residents. City officials have said they must price every home using the same process or run the risk of facing legal challenges.

One result: Hundreds of thousands of dollars are earmarked for homeowners who’ve never lived in Gordon Plaza.

Some were able to acquire property recently at bargain-basement prices and can now sell at the city’s agreed-upon inflated values. However, several said in interviews that their profits are less than they might seem. Some noted they will still need to find new homes, and others groused that they sunk thousands of dollars into properties now set for demolition.

“I’m losing everything I’ve got,” said Harold Lewis, who owns three properties on Agriculture Place. “I’m 75 years old. How do you start over at 75 years old?”

Lewis is actually among the Gordon Plaza residents who stand to make the most money from the buybacks — $475,000 in total, according to the city’s appraisals.

That won’t be a windfall, Lewis said, because he’ll need a new house.

Lewis acquired his properties for very little between 2014-16, with plans to erect a church community center, he said. Two of the purchases totaled $26,000, land records show. Lewis said the third cost around $45,000, for a total price of about $71,000.

He also says he spent more than $160,000 improving the properties, so his costs were around $230,000.

The city plans to level the properties — and the rest of the neighborhood — to build a solar farm.

“Eight years of work is piss in the wind,” said Lewis, who is also pastor at Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church.

Changing hands

The large majority of transactions in Gordon Plaza will benefit the families who were impacted by the neighborhood’s hazards. That includes those who have lost loved ones to cancers believed to be linked to the Superfund site.

Around 40 of the neighborhood’s 67 residential properties will be sold by Gordon Plaza residents who have owned their properties for decades, records show.

Another 18 have changed hands in the last decade, though records indicate that around half of those transactions stayed within the family.

The remaining are owned by people — including some who said they were unaware of the neighborhood’s history — who moved into Gordon Plaza in recent years, or invested in distressed properties and are now poised to reap a windfall.

Rashad Watson bought a home on Press Street in November 2021 for $65,000. The city has appraised it at $225,000.

Watson, an HVAC company owner who lives in Atlanta, has rented that and other New Orleans properties in the years since.

“The buy-outs don’t help us with receiving rental income,” Watson said. When a reporter informed him of the $225,000 appraisal, he asked: “It's $225,000 for sure? Do you know who to reach out to for an offer letter?"

The city advanced a proposal to fund the project a month after Watson’s purchase, but he said he wasn’t aware of the city’s intentions at the time. The city has no prohibition against buying from people who have little history with the property they’re selling.

Moving on

Just as discussions of a mass buyout were ramping up at City Hall, Lizzell Brooks-Williams bought a home on Gordon Plaza Drive for $55,000 from the Dorsey family, which lost multiple members to cancer.

Brooks-Williams, a Treme daycare operator, sold the property to the city for $315,000 last month. She hasn’t returned calls or messages seeking comment.

Truck driver Jonathan Darensbourg said he zeroed in on Gordon Plaza when he began investing in real estate in 2016 because he wanted something cheap. He paid $85,000 for a house on Gordon Plaza Drive, which he has since rented. He’s said his repairs have been limited to normal upkeep.

Darensbourg didn’t buy directly from a longtime resident: His property had been seized by a bank more than a decade ago. He said he’s sympathetic to families who won’t see any money from the city.

“I’d be on the same page with them,” he said. “I’m sorry for the tenants who had to go through that.”

He said he preferred maintaining the property as a rental, but accepted an offer from the city to sell it for $300,000. “I can’t wait to close on it, so I can move on,” he said.

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