I’ve got everything I need!
That was my neighbor in late December after I asked him if he had a building permit for the apartments he was adding to the back of his house.
We bought our house in 2005 a few months before Katrina hit and the poorly constructed/maintained levees in New Orleans failed. Our neighborhood is on the high ground that was created by the Mississippi River long before the Army Corps of Engineers got on the job, the “sliver by the river,” thus none of the properties on our block were damaged by the rising water. The place was a mess with fallen utility poles and tree branches and debris everywhere, but no flooding. When we got back into the city a couple weeks later, after first determining that the two cats we’d left locked in our house were okay and we cleaned out the refrigerator, I took a quick run to our backyard to size up our neighbor’s long dilapidated “addition.” It hadn’t changed–and it wouldn’t substantially change for another seven years until 2012 when it finally collapsed after several days of heavy rain. Here’s before/after collapse photos:
Now, in the intervening years a local non-profit, the United Saints Recovery Project, cycled volunteers who did maintenance work on our neighbor’s property: scraping paint off siding, painting, replacing rotted wood, etc. Let’s call it “deferred maintenance.” We allowed the United Saints and our neighbor to use our water hose and plug their power tools into our outside electrical outlets. They built scaffolding in our alleyway. We allowed them to take down our chain link fence separating the properties to aid in the efforts. As I said, this went on for years. We were of the mind that anything that was good for our neighbor’s property would be good for us. Of course we also hoped that all this work would eventually lead to the removal of the eyesore that was the back of our neighbor’s house.
Then last July the addition collapsed. Our neighbor told me he’d hastened its collapse by removing certain structural beams he’d added over the years. And here I thought all this time it was the vines holding the place together.
Over the next few months our neighbor and the neighborhood guys he hired cleaned away the former addition. We were elated. We were ready to proceed with plans for our backyard we’d held off on.
The first inkling I had that our neighbor was up to something odd was after most of the addition had been hauled off to a dumpster to reveal some odd rehab work the United Saints had previously completed:
Notice how the siding had been replaced along the right side of the back wall? Sure enough, it soon became clear that our neighbor aspired to rebuild the back addition, right now, without completing any of the needed repairs to the primary structure. In late December, my neighbor and his cohorts added a floor over the space where the former addition had once stood and that’s when I asked him about whether he had a building permit.
I’ve lived in New Orleans long enough to have earned a certain level of cynicism about the quality of the city’s services and the efficacy of its governance. But I thought, what the hell. If he has a building permit, it must be on record. So I called the city’s Safety and Permits Department on Wednesday, January 16. The guy I talked to looked up the property and said no building permit had been issued for it. He also said he was looking forward to inspecting the property the next day (when I told him the neighbor’s “I’ve got everything I need!” he said, “When they say that you know they’re lying.”). My cynicism ebbed.
However, when I called back to the same office on Friday I talked to a different person who put me on hold a long time and then told me that a permit had been issued in 2012. She said she did not know when in 2012 it was issued.
Same city department, two contradictory answers. My cynicism crept back but now I was angry. We’d recently elected a new city council person in District B, LaToya Cantrell, who seemed promising. Though I hadn’t voted for her it was the first election in New Orleans when I felt it was a win-win. Both candidates were exceptional. [Full disclosure: to fulfill an obligation in her high school AP Government class, my daughter had to select a political candidate to support in the upcoming election, at any level, and she chose our local city council race and Cantrell’s opponent, Dana Kaplan; since my daughter is a minor, I accompanied her and quickly became a full fledged Kaplan supporter in my own right.]
I emailed Cantrell at 6:10 p.m., Friday, January 18. I gave her background and ended with this paragraph:
Am I paranoid or too cynical to think this doesn’t pass the smell test? My fear is my neighbor has someone pulling strings for him in City Hall. Do you have any advice for how I should proceed? I already plan on calling that department again Tuesday to speak to the dept. head, but I wanted to see if your office can offer me and information or advice.
Cantrell replied at 9:57 p.m. (I would also note this was the beginning of a three-day holiday weekend):
I am copying the Director of Safety and Permits on this email Mr. Munster, and will follow-up on the matter on Tuesday since Monday is a holiday.
An inspector should definitely come out to assess the matter and I am positive that Mr. Munster feels the same.
At 10:40 p.m. I received an email from Jared Munster, the Director of Safety and Permits:
CM Cantrell, Mr Bridges, I will look into this and get back to you both with status of the property. I do apologize for the inconsistent answers about such a basic question; we will have a publicly accessible permit database online by the end of the month so that anyone will be able to check on the status of permits.
Jared E. Munster, Ph.D., AICP
Department of Safety and Permits
Sent via mobile device.
At 2:59 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20, Munster sent me another email:
In reviewing the permit history at this location, I found the following:
In 2010, permit 10BLD-00841 was issued for work described as “General cosmetic repairs to existing single – weatherboards, windows, frame, paint, and change deteriorated porch boards.”
On August 3, 2012, permit 12-21125-RNVN was issued as a supplemental permit to the 2010 permit to complete the work under the previous permit.
While there is an active permit for the location, the permitted work does not include an addition to the structure. By copy of this message, I am asking Johnny Odom, the Chief Building Inspector, to send an inspector to this location on Tuesday to post a Stop Work Order, to be effective until such time as permits are secured for all work proposed at this location.
Monday afternoon, Jan. 21, Cantrell replied again:
Thank you so much Dr. Munster again for your service and research in this matter! I knew you would address with haste.
Mr. Bridges please keep us abreast of what’s happening on the ground. You are our eyes and ears. Also thanks to you for bringing it to our attention in the first place. We truly appreciate you!
On Wednesday, Jan. 23, Johnny Odom, an inspector in Safety and Permits, confirmed:
A STOP WORK notice has been posted on this job by inspector Steven Dwyer.
On Friday, Jan. 25, Cantrell shared this jewel of information with me, indicating that even the original “addition” was an illegal job:
I see [the property] listed as a RD2, in order to add apartments he would need a zoning change and would have to secure the proper permitting.
Later the same day, Munster again emailed me:
A Stop Work Order was posted at this location at 1:41pm on January 22. The Order is supposed to remain posted on the property until the issue is resolved, but people often take them down and bring them to City Hall when they come to remedy the issue. As long as work does not continue it’s not particularly a problem that the notice is not posted on the structure.
If work does resume, please notify us and we will visit the location again to make it clear to anyone that may be confused that if work continues in contravention of our Stop Work Order, we have no problem taking additional action to secure compliance.
I’m also going to flag this address to require architectural plans before any additional permits are authorized.
Since then, Cantrell has confirmed for me that my neighbor would have to petition the City Planning Commission for any zoning change and residents of the area must be notified of any pending changes to allow them opportunity to raise concerns or voice support.
I have since notified the United Saints Recovery Project that we will no longer grant them access to our property. We’re done cooperating with our neighbor. I guess we’re stuck with his half-assed half-constructed addition alongside our backyard, but that’s not a bad tradeoff for a little faith in our city’s institutions.
But if we could just get the United Saints Recovery Project to do more than simply replace blue tarp over our neighbor’s roof …
… because we’re really getting tired of finding strands of faded blue tarp tangled in the blades of grass in our yard:
All the while, the United Saints Recovery Project has advertised its good works out front of our neighbor’s house, which by implication links them to illegal construction.
Update (March 21): The United Saints Recovery Project has taken away its sign. No idea if it’s related to this post. No apology, either, but that seems in keeping with the don’t
feed talk to the animals locals approach of its volunteers and staff.