Jefferson Parish Big Fixer-Upper: Revitalizing Housing Stock

METAIRIE, LA (AP) — "Location, location, location" is the real estate mantra. But when you're a local government, how do you make your location the one where everyone wants to be?

         That's the question facing Jefferson Parish officials as they try to attract young families to what is largely a classic post-World War II U.S. suburb. For now, there's one area on which they are focusing as they look to give Jefferson a jump-start: revitalizing the housing stock.

         "There are a lot of people talking about (housing revitalization) and what's the best approach to encourage it," Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken said. "I know it's on everybody's radar."

         Officials emphasize they've only just begun exploring the issue and have no specific proposals yet. Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng is spearheading the effort, and is beginning to coordinate with other officials and groups such as the Jefferson Economic Development Commission to gather more information and consider ideas.

         A significant portion of Jefferson Parish's housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s, ranch-style, single-family houses that might still have the original kitchens and bathrooms. About 87 percent of the housing is at least 25 years old, according to a recent consultant's report exploring the issue.

         "How are we able to attract these families to come in, when they need tens of thousands of dollars in renovations to get it to their standards?" Lee-Sheng asked.

         Jefferson also must contend with its image as a suburban parish competing with the metropolitan vibrancy of neighboring New Orleans. It's not an easy position when millennials are known for wanting to be in the middle of walkable, busy cities rather than quiet suburbs.

         "My parent's generation, they all wanted a single-family home. They wanted to drive to their stores," Lee-Sheng said. That's not the case anymore, she said, adding "we've got to change with the times."

         People today are also increasingly likely to be interested in multi-family housing such as condominiums and townhouses, as they seek out more walkable, compact communities.

         "I think we have options" for housing in Jefferson Parish, JEDCO Executive Director Jerry Bologna said. "We probably just don't have enough of all of the options."

         Still, Jefferson has a lot going for it. It's generally more affordable than New Orleans, particularly as housing prices there continue to rise. And Jefferson's houses usually come with bigger yards for a growing family.

         So what do you do to persuade young families to buy those older houses, or encourage developers to build new ones? Some possibilities floated by officials have included giving tax breaks or incentives on renovations so owners won't have to pay more taxes because their renovated properties are worth more.

         Parish President Mike Yenni wants to revamp the Code Enforcement Department so that the process of getting permits for doing renovations will be quicker and more streamlined. "Buy this old three-bedroom, two-bath home in Metairie," he said. "Add another bath if that's what you want. Add a garage. We want to have code enforcement that's going to help them streamline the process to renovate and do those things to their houses."

         The efforts could go beyond the houses and owners themselves. Corridor redevelopment — adding amenities like bicycle paths and sprucing up the streetscape — also can help spur nearby property owners to fix up their houses or convince new buyers to look in the area, Yenni said. He cited a recent plan to revamp Metairie's Canal Street corridor between Interstate 10 and the 17th Street Canal, covering the canal and adding bike and walking paths, as an example of something that could help.

         "If you drive down that street, you'll see older little houses that in my opinion in the next few years might turn into nicer, high-end townhomes," Yenni said. "You might see people want to rezone their lots in order to build a bigger house there. … Projects like that throughout Jefferson Parish are what we're going to have to look at."

         The efforts might even involve trying to bring small businesses closer to some neighborhoods, to give them more of the walkable feel today's young families seek.

         The initiatives will take different forms depending on which side of the Mississippi River they're on. West Jefferson has more empty land available for development. That allows large-scale projects to be built from the ground up, like a mixed-use development being considered for the Fairfield area. In East Jefferson, renovations of existing buildings and smaller developments are more likely.

         "I see the West Bank for future growth of new development. I see the east bank for growth of redevelopment," Yenni said.

         This isn't an initiative that will bear fruit overnight for the entire parish, Lee-Sheng said. Officials will find certain pilot neighborhoods that want the change. But it's crucial to do something to bring in new residents, she said.

         "Every parish is competing for new families," Lee-Sheng said. "Every community around the country's fighting for that, or else you're a community that's starting to expire."

         – by AP/ Reporter Diana Samuels with Times-Picayune

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