This piece originally appeared on The Lens.
With its tangled title, backed-up taxes and an ambience that hovers somewhere between junkyard and barnyard, it’s no showplace. But for Lane Hughes, the waterless wreck of a house has been all that stands between him and the streets or a shelter.
In proceedings last June on whether to take down the “eyesore” in the New Orleans neighborhood of Mid-City, Neighborhood Conservation District Committee members had been a tad startled to realize that the man taking the microphone to oppose demolition of the “abandoned” structure was, in fact, its occupant.
There’s a philosophical question at the heart of the matter. In this particular skirmish, is the city’s war on blight at cross-purposes with efforts to combat homelessness?
This week, after months of temporizing and red tape, the city bureaucracy ground into gear and spat out what Hughes has long fought: A demolition order.
The property, in the 1900 block of St. Louis Street across from the Lafitte Greenway, now under construction, has been Hughes’ home since he moved to New Orleans after Katrina to help out his family. His Uncle Pike, a housebound Vietnam vet, had inherited the place from Hughes’ grandmother, Octavia, in whose name the property remains. Why? Because when Uncle Pike died and Hughes became the sole occupant, the assessor required payment of $8,500 in fines and back taxes before he would rework the title. For Hughes, who scrapes by collecting soda cans for sale to a nearby scrap metal dealer, that sum was, to say the least, a stretch.
Hughes’ may be the only house in the area with chickens pecking in the dooryard and a magpie’s accumulation of junk scattered all over the place, but then this stretch of St. Louis Street is never confused with Audubon Place, the city’s wealthiest enclave. Other properties have been put to light-industrial use — cinderblock warehouses; a delivery truck garage — as zoning allows.
Hughes, now in his mid-40s, sees himself as an artist and the debris as yard art. His contention that Friends of the Lafitte Greenway are his foes in the demolition fight have been denied.
He did not turn up for this week’s fateful meeting of the Neighborhood Conservation Committee. Nor did he answer a reporter’s knock at his gate the next day. But an early morning visit to the property showed signs of recent gardening, a fresh profusion of plastic flowers and some roof work — evidence that he still lives there.
The NCDC’s 6-2 vote appears to doom the property. What happens to its occupant remains uncertain.
Informed that demolition appeared imminent, Martha Kegel of Unity for the Homeless said she would “reach out the Veterans Administration“ to see what services they might be able to provide Hughes.