My Katrina Decade by William Monaghan
Ten years ago I was wading toward my flooded childhood home in New Orleans when my 86-year-old mother, Eleanor Monaghan, reached me by phone to tell me she had made it to safety. A non-swimmer in a deluge, a meticulous dresser in polluted water, a proud housekeeper alone in a ruined home, she coped with Katrina and would emerge stronger from the challenge. After learning Mom was on a bus to the Astrodome, I ferried supplies to canteen trucks and helped survivors out of rescue helicopters. Their plight was shocking. We would learn that 1,800 people died in the Gulf Coast region, and that half the population of New Orleans abandoned the city. Katrina was the deadliest, most destructive hurricane in U.S. history, and relief efforts in its aftermath would range from ineffectual to perversely obstructive.
Mom relocated to my New York City apartment. My acquaintances all wanted to meet this resilient woman, and at parties Mom stood by the front door so she wouldn’t miss anyone. For weeks we tried not to think about our New Orleans home, but by November it was time to assess the damage. When I arrived at the New Orleans airport, the frigid interior and tidy professionalism seemed a willful denial of the sweet sticky air and ruined landscape outside.
My route home wound through a high-ground neighborhood of 1950s ranch houses blanketed with blue tarpaulins over their wind-damaged roofs. As I got closer, front yards were heaped with sodden debris, downed trees, and mangled architecture. I found my old house stained by multiple horizontal water lines. Inside, mold patterns flourished on the walls. The floor was a slippery, irregular terrain of buckled parquet and slimy carpet, and furniture parts lay in improbable heaps, its glue having dissolved. I retrieved Mom’s jewelry from a bag in an upper kitchen cabinet and collected her favorite shoes from a high shelf in her closet for experiment with mold removal. The fetid smell finally drove me out the back door, where I found the yard dotted with hundreds of green melons that sprouted after trash floated in. My salvage effort would have to wait for planning, manpower, and equipment. I decided to drive further into the city.
Before Katrina, New Orleans made time feel suspended. After, the physical decay went from picturesque to catastrophic as vivid media images of the terrible human toll were broadcast around the world. Now the city was eerily quiet and empty, save for an occasional National Guard Humvee or a resident removing debris from a house. But in the French Quarter there was a huge tented police command center by Jackson Square and hundreds of uniformed officers strolled and lounged on the sidewalks.
I found a Habitat for Humanity project in Central City and helped build concrete block piers. Later, at dinner in one of the city’s few operating restaurants, I listened to the din of conversations rising from every table. There were stories of the missing, survival, and loss, and rage at the denial of insurance claims, dishonest contractors, FEMA, and President Bush. Katrina’s sad refrain continues to this day.
That night I met a man from Arizona who worked for the Small Business Administration, dispatched to New Orleans to originate loans to storm victims. He agreed to give me a tour of storm damage the next day. As we drove past blocks of damaged houses to neighborhoods where the structures had been washed away, he explained that the SBA wasn’t making any loans because local applicants couldn’t meet the financial requirements.
I returned with Mom a few weeks later to salvage what we could and find a place for her to live. We set up tables in her front yard and hosed brown sludge off her glasses, silverware, and china. Mom said she might consider a condominium in DeLimon, a nearby complex, and I made an appointment to see what was available. Behind the gates, perfectly maintained townhouses sat amidst manicured lawns and blooming flowers.
We found a place for Mom in that oasis of sanitation and order, but recovery was stalled across the rest of the city. By January 2007, Road Home, the major federal rebuilding program, had made 177 payments out of 99,000 applications (each application required more than 50 steps). Payments were headlined at $150,000, when the actual average payment was $69,000, forcing recipients to patch up low, severely damaged houses that should have been demolished. ICF International was paid $900,000,000 just to administer the program.
Banks forced many homeowners to turn over Road Home payments to repay their mortgages, leaving them with nothing but worthless lots. Substantial housing projects were vacated and demolished, to be replaced by private developments featuring small percentages of low income units and long wait lists. FEMA, the only program that enabled families to move back, provided formaldehyde-filled trailers. Later the government allocated millions to provide compact, well-designed homes called Katrina Cottages. By the time the accomplished architect and planner Andrés Duany got the project through layers of approvals, bidding, and production delays, years had passed. Sadly, the Katrina Cottage program was abandoned when communities refused the homes, claiming their small size would diminish real estate values and invite lower-income residents.
Casinos, banks, and hotels reopened, but thousands of homeowners could not rebuild. Their homes were their shelter, their net worth, the place they shared with family, the place that linked them to their neighbors and their community. I felt compelled to do something. I had forty years experience as an architect and contractor. I could help homeowners rebuild.
Pre-Katrina house prices averaged $134,000. Post-Katrina, few contractors would build a new house, and none would build one for anything close to $134,000. Several mobile home sales offices advertised lower prices in the Lower Ninth Ward, but they were built like FEMA trailers, and there were so many stories of stolen down payments and shoddy construction that few considered them an option.
On another visit to New Orleans, I met Bradley Latham, a contractor working on flooded apartment complexes. He agreed it should be possible to build a high quality, modest sized house for $134,000. We decided that I would establish a nonprofit called Build Now. I would design a series of houses, and Bradley would oversee construction.
By this time, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and the Road Home program had begun to distribute thousands of lots to church and community groups for home construction. I approached them all, stressing that no affordable homes would be built on the lots because no contractor would do it. None would give us a site to build a model house. (Groups who received the lots would return them, unbuilt, years later). As no homeowner could face the economic consequences of having every house in the neighborhood in ruins, I bought a lot for four times its value.
I approached the Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, and others for financial assistance with no success. Katrina victims weren’t going to get a new house if I spent my time talking to bureaucrats. I decided the only way around this roadblock was the strategy called social entrepreneurship, a model described as defining the social need you want to fulfill, assembling the methods to satisfy that need, and cobbling together a way to pay for it. Like a charity, Build Now would use social benefit as its guide, but would use entrepreneurial techniques to pay for it. Our social aim remained the same — build new housing for homeowners displaced by Katrina — but financial resources would come from negotiating with the government to get homeowners the payments they were due; from the multiple rebuilding programs that existed; and from homeowner savings, mortgages, insurance, family contributions, and grants.
We raised our model house under a huge oak tree on a deserted stretch of Elysian Fields Avenue. A wide stair rose dramatically to its traditional columned porch eight feet above the ground — elevated to keep it safe from future flooding. To the left, a flooded brick ranch house barely above the level of the sidewalk was patched up and reoccupied. To the right, a family moved into a new double wide modular house, trim sagging and vinyl siding flapping in the wind.
The burgeoning renewal industry began churning out imaginative housing solutions: Houses that float. Disaster-inspired houses made of broken shapes. Steel termite-proof houses. High-tech, high-cost “green” houses. Prefab houses. And finally, no houses — just a return to swamp.
Inducing storm-scarred homeowners to return and rebuild argued against designs that the average person didn’t recognize as a house. So for exteriors, I chose two traditional forms of New Orleans architecture, Greek Revival and Creole Cottage. Both have the all-important front porch. For interiors, I developed modern plans that avoided aspects like direct entrance into the living room, dark living areas, or sheds added to the back that blocked kitchens from outdoor access. My houses accommodated various family sizes, but were compact to make energy bills, taxes, and insurance affordable. We carefully specified building materials to avoid fiberglass and plastics and to minimize dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde and solvents. We installed high efficiency, easy-to-maintain mechanical systems. Minimal impervious paving was installed, allowing storm water to percolate into the ground. In order to aid New Orleans’ economy, we hired local craftsmen and material suppliers. Most importantly, in the generally unreliable world of post-Katrina construction, we had a full set of plans for each of our twelve models, showing and specifying every detail of construction.
Our contractor Bradley asked his girlfriend to handle sales. She placed ads in the paper and signs in the yard, but we had few calls and no buyers. I tried to convince Bradley that Katrina victims needed an aggressive outreach effort, counseling, and assistance if they were going to build a new home. I had been commuting from New York, and it became clear that Build Now needed a local director. I lured my daughter Tess from her job at Bain Consulting, asking her to put her tremendous energy and skills to use for Build Now, and helped her move into a shotgun house in the Carrollton neighborhood. Bradley left the organization, and Build Now became the contractor.
From her office on Maple Street, Tess developed a broad business plan. We formed a construction team. We had interns canvas neighborhoods and search databases for homeowners who had scattered across the country. We promoted awareness through neighborhood meetings, housing fairs, media appearances, and our very popular crawfish boils at the model house. We cornered elected officials and bureaucrats at countless political events. We pitched Build Now to Mayor Ray Nagin, who was more interested in looking down my daughter’s blouse.
We built our first house for Ms. Debra Porche who owned a lot in the Lower Ninth Ward and needed a home for herself, her daughter, and her granddaughter. She was employed at the “fruit cake factory” and had saved a substantial Road Home payment. We also built a house for Mr. Mingko Aba, who had a lawn care service and was living in his truck. He had survived Katrina by eating fruit from the trees in his yard. He prepaid his house with a check comprising his entire Road Home payment — $100,000 — because he was afraid of losing it.
Most homeowners were not so stable emotionally or financially. People appeared at the model house telling stories of displacement, loss, and their hope to return. Veteran neighborhood activist Nikki Najiola and mortgage broker Kim Autin acted as our sales team, but functioned more as advocates and counselors. They were endlessly patient and resourceful as they reviewed Road Home applications, goaded program administrators into action, searched for qualifying assistance programs, improved credit scores, and found sources of funding.
By 2010 we had sold 60 new houses, more than any other organization building single family homes. I had hoped that our aim of a house on every lot would inspire and be copied by other relief entities, but it was not. NORA representatives expressed amazement that we could build affordably priced houses for immediate occupancy, because their expensive spec houses sat empty for years. They couldn’t understand that the only people who wanted to move to a devastated neighborhood were the ones who previously lived there and wanted to rebuild and return home. In February 2010, NORA launched the NSP2 grant program and disbursed nearly $30,000,000. The awards all went to spec builders, trickling into the billion dollar ocean of recovery overhead. Few houses were constructed, and Build Now received nothing. We could have helped 1,500 families return home with the NSP2 funds. One recipient was Brad Pitt’s Make It Right. At that time, if you divided their revenue by their number of completed and in- process houses, each one cost $800,000.
The architect for Project Home Again, a $20,000,000 project funded by Barnes and Noble president Leonard Riggio, called asking to visit Build Now, and after looking at our houses and drawings, he offered to design houses for us. We didn’t need twenty pages of drawings, he said, just a plan and an elevation. The cabinet company would do the kitchen and bathroom drawings for us, and the electricians and plumbers would know where to put the switches and fixtures. He would visit his construction sites to tell the carpenters where to put the windows and doors. I visited some Project Home Again houses and could understand why their director and NORA said they had difficulty finding people who would trade their ruined house for one.
Vivid characters continued to appear at our model house. Big Chief James McFadden of the Red Hawk Hunter Mardi Gras Indian tribe needed a house for four generations of his family. Tiny, frail Virginia Paul was so excited that Tess was going to get her out of her nursing home that she wrote Build Now a check for all the equity needed to build her house on Tricou Street. 74-year-old Florine Jenkins was commuting two hours each way from Baton Rouge to work as a housekeeper for a family uptown. Build Now sent employees to sit in the Road Home office for days to secure the payments she was due, allowing her to rebuild in her beloved Lower Ninth neighborhood. When I drove past the house we built for four generations of the Schexnayder family, Lionel Ferbos — the 97-year-old family patriarch and New Orleans’ oldest performing jazz musician — sat on the porch.
Back in New York at a party, I struck up a conversation about New Orleans with the woman who would become my wife. She grew up at the other end of the Mississippi River. As we started a family, visited my mother, and managed Build Now, the lure of New Orleans became irresistible to both of us. We learned of two adjacent empty Uptown lots where a pair of houses had burned not long after Katrina. We were able to purchase one, and I began designing a house. One day a woman approached Mr. Aba, whom we’d hired to keep the lot mowed, and asked him to relay the message that she owned the second lot and was finally ready to sell it. I scrapped my first plan, redesigned the house, and began construction. I gave Mom tours of the project in her wheelchair. Her health had deteriorated from two broken hips and heart disease, but she faced every difficulty with patience and dignity. She beamed in the company of her baby grandson and entertained us with fizzy comments and wry views of the world. On October 15, 2011, she dined with a loyal companion at Commander’s Palace. That evening she had a fatal heart attack. Though she and my father were gone, I felt closer to them when a year later I moved home with my wife and two young sons.
My family had a home, but the situation became worse for Katrina victims after the 2010 mayoral election. Mitch Landrieu won with a campaign that featured a fight against blight. He grouped storm victims’ houses with neglected commercial buildings and declared them to be the city’s major problem. Time was passing, memory was fading, real estate was becoming more valuable, and displaced homeowners were increasingly portrayed as perpetrators of blight. The city increased enforcement and tax adjudication procedures to take title to those properties and sell them at sheriff’s auctions.
For every house Build Now constructed, there were many people we couldn’t help. Our budget limited the subsidy we could grant. The 2008 financial crisis curtailed mortgage lending, and loans to build houses required higher credit scores than loans to purchase houses. To counteract the former, we established credit lines with local banks so that we could make a limited number of construction loans to our clients. We had no defaults.
But the costs of outreach, counseling, and construction management required the sale of more than the one or two houses we were building each month. To increase volume, we had wheedled four lots away from NORA and immediately built houses on them. We approached NORA again. After weeks of negotiations, they agreed to give us 20 lots, but, unlike their distributions to other nonprofits, demanded we presell them. With a concerted effort lasting months, we found and signed buyers for the sites. NORA then rescinded its agreement and awarded the lots to Project Home Again. Build Now’s Director, Jackie Hill, sat across from five NORA employees to be told that the sites were withdrawn because the administrator who made the award was leaving NORA, and because Project Home Again was a better funded organization. Project Home Again’s director’s office is located down the hall from NORA, and its founder was a major contributor to Mitch Landrieu’s campaign.
We pushed through the financial cost and waste of effort to regroup and sell 16 houses that year. Our total now stands at 127 homes, which shelter nearly four hundred vital members of the New Orleans community: nurses, writers, musicians, housekeepers, retired school teachers, Habitat for Humanity employees, small business owners, artists, and Mardi Gras Indians. We proved that with a per unit subsidy of $20,000, handsome elevated houses conforming to high environmental standards could be built for an affordable average cost of $122,000. To date, Build Now has injected $15,500,000 into the local economy.
I couldn’t convince the building industry to build houses on the lots of tens of thousands of Katrina victims who wanted to return. But that didn’t slow down the recovery. In restaurants, the hum of Katrina stories fades. In its place, I hear the buzz of compared arrival dates and favorite shops in Brooklyn. Massive tax credits motivate investors to convert old buildings to apartments. Dumpsters appear on rundown blocks, heralding a remodel job and new occupants. What is the source of the dramatic influx of new residents? Is it tech startups, incubator enterprises, cheaper art studios, second homes? Coming from Manhattan’s West Village, we worry about gentrification. But somehow, native New Orleans culture survives and strengthens. Marching bands parade. There are so many eccentric houses in New Orleans that every time you drive though the city, you find a previously undiscovered chalet, pagoda, or shack. Mardi Gras Indian culture is more colorful than ever. New restaurants appear weekly. Though banks battle with drug store chains for prime real estate, franchises still don’t dominate the streets, and store rents are still affordable to hundreds of locally owned businesses. New Orleans is energized and enlivened. This may be the golden moment.
It’s quiet in the Build Now office. Refugee families settle permanently in new cities, homeowners’ lots are seized, and the government directs funding to other nonprofits. But I can’t close the door on the people I saw at the landing zone after Katrina. The memory recurs, and once again I’m under the circling rotors. Dazed by each revolution, I reach for figures in the helicopter and lead them to a field in the rain.