Officials and community advocates are quietly planting the seeds for an enterprising program that could give the government temporary control over thousands of privately owned homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.A very bold idea, and likely to be controversial. But at first look, it seems like a good one. IF, and that's a big if, the program is administered fairly.
An increasing number of Louisiana housing authorities believe the proposal, based on an arcane legal concept called "usufruct," could be a key to determining whether New Orleans will again be a seminal American city or whether it will stagnate with a population, like it has now, equal to that of Duluth, Minn., and Fort Smith, Ark.
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Authorities would locate scattered homeowners to determine if they have the means or the inclination to rebuild. There are believed to be at least 100,000 homes in New Orleans that are damaged to the point that they are not habitable. If the owner is not planning to return anytime soon, local officials would strike a deal.
The owner would sign over controlling rights of the property — but not the title — to the government. In most cases, that would likely be the city of New Orleans, but the program would apply statewide and could involve numerous municipal or parish governments.
Through contracts targeting hundreds of properties at once, the government would then pay to make the home habitable again, while assuming, in most cases, mortgage payments for the owner.
The home would then be rented out, first to displaced "essential workers" such as teachers, police officers and firefighters and their families, then to the public. Rents would likely be subsidized, and checks would be written to the government agency that signed the deal or to a company hired to manage the money.
The owners would be allowed to return after an agreed-upon period of time — perhaps three to five years — provided they could repay the government for repairs made. If, at that point, the owner did not want to return or could not pay for the fixes, the government would have the right to sell it. If the house were sold, the government and the owner could share in profits and losses.