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To stay or go? More people deciding
Activity is replacing paralysis, report says
Thursday, June 08, 2006
By Coleman Warner Staff writer

New Orleans homes for sale have reached a new peak and the city is reporting an escalating number of residential building permits, two seemingly conflicting facts that combined suggest homeowners are accelerating their decisions on whether to rebuild or get rid of their Katrina-flooded homes, the Brookings Institution said Wednesday. Advertisement

In releasing its latest Katrina Index report, the Washington nonprofit research organization gave a sobering interpretation of the home-sales figure: "This may signal the decision made by families to leave Orleans Parish." But a measure of hope can be gleaned from both home sales and building permits, according to the group's deputy director, Amy Liu. Together they signal a turn away from paralysis, and sales could improve the rate at which homes are cleaned up and put back into use, she said.

Though in earlier months "there was absolute stagnation, paralysis, a holding pattern, now we're starting to see a lot of activity," Liu said. "At least now we see homeowners making decisions, families making decisions."

The number of homes listed for sale at any given time in Orleans Parish has increased steadily, from 2,899 in early January to 3,884 this month, according to the Louisiana Realtors Association. The same pattern can be seen generally across the metro area, with sales listings for the area's eight parishes increasing from 8,047 in early January to 9,756 this month.

The rising number of listings may be attributed in part to a traditional uptick in homes placed on the market at the end of a school year, or to an accumulation of homes for which there are no buyers. The published figures also don't capture a for-sale-by-owner market that has flourished in some areas since Katrina, as many owners try to avoid marketing fees.

But just as homeowners decide to sell, the Brookings report shows many more also are seeking to rebuild. It indicates that more than 21,000 New Orleans residential building permits have been issued this year, raising the total since Katrina to almost 34,000. Brookings officials say the bulk of the activity is found in renovations, not new construction. The group didn't include permit figures for other parishes.

New Orleans permits issued for work on homes totaled 4,959 in May, the highest monthly total for the year with the exception of the 8,156 issued in February.

Mayor Ray Nagin's office said this week that including residential and commercial properties, the city has issued about 70,000 permits representing work valued at more than $1 billion since Katrina.

"Since September we've issued more than 10 times the number of residential permits that were issued in all of 2004," said Department of Safety and Permits Director Mike Centineo.

Although Centineo's department lost many of its employees after Katrina, "over the last nine months, the department has issued what would normally take us up to five years," he said. With the city issuing permits online and through self-service kiosks at City Hall, long lines faced by applicants soon after Katrina have been eliminated, officials said.

"We are very excited about the number of permits issued daily to our citizens so that they can start the process of rebuilding our neighborhoods," Nagin said.

City officials expect thousands more homeowners to make decisions on their properties in the near future, as Congress this week is expected to approve another $4.2 billion for a state housing program that would give homeowners up to $150,000 in grants for rebuilding or buyouts.

The Brookings report suggests Nagin's re-election also might offer some stability, because it has brought "clarity and renewed energy" to the city's rebuilding process, making it easier for city leaders to plan.

Among other Brookings findings:

-- With more than 100,000 federal trailers in use for emergency housing across the region, the bulk of them in Louisiana, local officials will face additional problems during a mass evacuation. They must take extra measures to get information to families in trailers, "many of whom live in isolated situations" without TV or Internet access, and there is a threat that trailer residents will try to evacuate with them, clogging evacuation routes. Government officials repeatedly have warned residents not to move trailers.

-- The metro area's unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent in April, the lowest level since Katrina, but the positive reading could be a result of a nearly 12 percent drop in the size of the Louisiana labor force. Since Katrina, the New Orleans area suffered work-force losses of 43 percent in education and health services, 35 percent in the leisure/hospitality industry and 28 percent in trade and transportation.

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Staff writer Bruce Eggler contributed to this report. Coleman Warner can be reached at or (504) 826-3311.