First public offer on Gordon Plaza home isn't enough for relocation, residents say
The city’s first public offer to buy out a home built on toxic soil fell short of Gordon Plaza residents’ expectations on Friday, raising concerns that the city won’t fully fund their relocation.
Last week, Sheena Dedmond volunteered to have her house in Gordon Plaza appraised by the city, agreeing to make the results public to help her neighbors see how the city’s process would work.
On Thursday, Dedmond became the first Gordon Plaza resident to receive an offer on her house along Abundance Street after an appraisal by Jim Thorns, who was contracted by the Cantrell administration. The letter also gave her a 30-day deadline to accept.
The appraisal valued her 2,898-square-foot, brick home, and the land it sits on, at $358,000 – far higher than the neighborhood’s going rate but residents say it’s not enough to cover all the costs associated with moving into a new home in New Orleans.
In an attempt to remove the neighborhood’s environmental issues from the equation, Thorns appraised Dedmonds house by comparing it to other similar, recently sold homes in two other neighborhoods, Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods. He argued during Friday’s Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting that those neighborhoods were similar to Gordon Plaza had it not been built on a landfill.
Dedmond and other residents disagreed, noting, for one, that the three houses he used for the appraisal weren’t brick homes.
“I don’t think it was fair. The houses he compared my home to, it just does not compare, and I would probably feel much better if it did,” Dedmond said after Friday’s meeting. The lifelong Gordon Plaza resident plans to have Thorns’ appraisal professionally reviewed by another licensed appraiser. Those results will be discussed at the task force’s next meeting.
Goron Plaza residents argued Thorns’ choice of neighborhoods was subjective and could limit where they’re able to move.
“Are you saying we can only go to the Gentilly Woods area?” said Dedmond, who had hoped he would incorporate the value of a home in other areas like the West End neighborhood. “He chose three homes in the same area. He could’ve have chosen one somewhere else. … You’re not giving that opportunity.”
In his appraisal of Dedmond’s home, Thorns wrote that his method aimed to incorporate her house’s replacement cost – a metric that residents have pushed the city to use over the past four months.
Because the neighborhood was built on top of a retired landfill, basing buyouts off the open market would fall far short of paying residents what they need to find another home in New Orleans.
In December, an analysis by experts from Tulane University’s Department of Sociology and School of Architecture, as well as a local real estate broker found that the median sales price for a home in Gordon Plaza since 2000 has sat around $72,000. Meanwhile, the median sales price across the city sits around $360,000 in the first six months of 2022.
Instead of using fair market value, Gordon Plaza residents, and city council members, have consistently called for the use of an appraisal method known as replacement cost to be used. Typically, appraisers use a sales comparison method, which means comparing a property’s worth to other similar, recently sold homes. But they can also appraise based on how much it would cost to construct the house from scratch – or replace it.
The residents argued that the replacement or construction cost metric would yield results closer to what their homes would be worth if they weren’t located on toxic soil.
Located in the Desire neighborhood, Gordon Plaza is the last populated neighborhood on the former site of the Agriculture Street landfill, home to 67 properties. The area once hosted a public housing development called Press Park, a senior housing complex and an elementary school that were all shut down after Hurricane Katrina.
Gordon Plaza residents have called for relocation since the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area one of the most toxic Superfund sites in the country in 1994. That was 13 years after the neighborhood was built and marketed to Black residents looking to buy their first home.
The EPA found that the soil was laced with more than 50 hazardous compounds such as arsenic and lead caused by five decades of waste disposal there. Despite cleanup efforts, residents said they haven't been free from illness. This year, the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the Desire area, of which Gordon Plaza is a part, had the second-highest rate of cancer in the state.
Cantrell's office plans to convert the Superfund site into a renewable energy park and buy out residents in the process. In late June, the City Council set aside $35 million to fund the effort.
That money has since been transferred into an external account at Liberty Bank but has yet to be distributed. In addition to the appraiser, the city has contracted a law firm to advise on the buyout process.
The next Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting has been scheduled for Oct. 31 at 1 p.m., where residents hope to have more questions answered about how a Gordon Plaza relocation assistance fund proposed by Councilmember JP Morrell would cover moving costs.
After seeing Dedmond’s appraisal, residents have said they will need more money in addition to their buyouts in order to move without incurring debt, said organizer Angela Kinlaw on Friday.
Morrell’s proposed relocation fund has been deferred during city council meetings twice since it first appeared on the agenda in early October.