Even though Hurricane Katrina and the Great Flood of 2016 made the problem much worse, the sad fact is that blighted property was a problem in many cities across Louisiana for a long time before those calamities.
The crisis has been difficult to address. Even when owners neglected their property and failed to pay taxes on it, Louisiana law sharply restricted what could be done about it.
Because sheriff’s sales could be redeemed for years afterward, for example, a new buyer could not put property back into commerce since title insurance was so difficult to obtain. There were onerous legal notice requirements to protect property owners, which often were dozens of heirs who might be unaware of their interest in a lot or falling-down house.
Over the years, particularly after Katrina, state leaders have changed the law to ease roadblocks to redevelopment. Removing legal barriers to insurance and to purchase of property that is adjudicated for unpaid taxes has been easier in many other states. And that’s been a striking contrast as Louisiana faced so many blighted properties after major disasters. Our state was obviously most in need of a better legal regime to help put land back into commerce.
The process was advanced in the 2019 Legislature with passage of a bill by state Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, making it easier for new property owners. Under the bill pushed by a statewide coalition organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the ownership of land by purchasers is protected if an adequate effort is made to notify parties of the tax sale.
This is a statewide issue. BRAC’s leadership pulled together other business organizations, including OneAcadiana and Greater New Orleans Inc., the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and redevelopment organizations to address the underlying legal problems that can get in the way of cleaning up tax-sale properties.
Blighted property would seem such a simple problem. If somebody isn’t paying the taxes, typically for years, then it ought to be easily sold to someone who will pay property taxes and fix the lot or buildings up. While blight can be concentrated in areas where there have been floods, it is also found in other neighborhoods where tax sales occurred. Nothing has frustrated neighborhood organizations more.
The Davis bill was a good step, but because property rights can be a sensitive issue, it took a bipartisan and statewide coalition like that organized by BRAC to make its passage possible. Bringing Louisiana law into line with most other states in this realm makes it more likely that lots will be purchased, homes be rebuilt, and property taxes paid for local governments in Louisiana.