NEW ORLEANS — Arthur Sterbcow has dealt with a lot of flat tires in the past year — 17 at last count. It’s not surprising given the countless roofing nails, broken bits of glass and other debris that still litter the streets around the flood-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans. Curb appeal is not a high priority in the area’s real estate market these days.
There are bigger worries, like when and if the insurance proceeds are going to come through, how much insurance will cost, when and if residents will choose to return to the city or sell off their homes, and what types of repairs are necessary to make the homes livable again while complying with building codes.
Real estate companies have reinvented themselves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Historic market statistics became meaningless, and the tangle of government programs and insurance headaches facing home buyers and sellers brought new challenges for real estate agents.
“All real estate is local — now it’s even more local,” said Sterbcow, 57, a lifelong New Orleans resident who is president of Latter & Blum Cos., a real estate brokerage company. Few residents in the New Orleans area were untouched by the tragedy that struck the Gulf Coast last year, and only four of Latter & Blum’s 28 offices were operating after the storm hit last year. Sterbcow said the disaster was the equivalent of 300,000 immediate eviction notices for New Orleans-area residents — the impacted area was 13 times larger than Manhattan Island.
A year later, the company has 28 offices up and running, with plans to open two more. The company has grown its agent pool from a pre-storm level of 1,000 to a current mark of about 1,100.
About 1,800 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in late August and flooded about 80 percent of New Orleans, causing an estimated $81 billion in damages. By comparison, about 2,700 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, which caused about $40 billion in insured losses and an estimated $83 billion in total economic losses.
Sterbcow said he learned an important lesson in the flooding disaster that followed Katrina. “(Real estate) agents proved they’re going to be indispensable,” he said. Real estate agents’ empathy and their ability to build relationships were important in establishing trust with residents who had lost so much, he said.
“There wasn’t a business relationship to be found after the hurricane — it was all personal,” he said. “They’re vested. A lot of them took on a lot of personal responsibility. They became the fabric of their society.”
Real estate professionals “probably do as much psychology as we do measuring the house” these days, he said. “The stress on the populace is beyond what you can articulate. Personalities have changed. (The hurt) is just under the surface, it’s palpable sometimes.”
There is a lingering resentment among locals over the federal government’s handling of the disaster. Even in the tourist-centric parts of town you can find T-shirts with humorous messages that pin the blame on government agencies and carry creative interpretations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s acronym.
“It wasn’t a situation of Hurricane Katrina, it was a situation of failed government,” Sterbcow said.
Buyers and sellers are sometimes overwhelmed by the choices they have to make, and Sterbcow said it takes “at least a two-hour conversation” for agents to truly understand all of the factors that are playing into the decision, such as jobs, family, appetite for misery. There is a lot of real estate trading going on within families, he said.
Older generations are in some cases offering their damaged homes over to younger relatives who have more energy to repair or rebuild them. The reduced supply of housing has also driven up prices and driven out some residents who can no longer to afford to live in the city.
“We are going to see gentrification. We’re powerless to stop it,” Sterbcow said, adding that median sales prices still remain below the national average. Modular housing may be a solution to getting hurricane victims back on their feet, he said, and the real estate industry has been seeking lenders who understand and support this type of home. In many neighborhoods, residents are still living in temporary trailers on their property or in public areas.
Insurance costs remain a major problem in the region, Sterbcow said, and commercial insurance has risen several hundred percent in some cases while residential rates are up about 40 percent to 60 percent on average.
The New Orleans population is estimated at about 200,000, he said, compared to a pre-storm count of about 440,000, and it may take about 12 years to reach the pre-storm level.
Sterbcow said he is confident that the flood-affected areas will bounce back. “Every single area of New Orleans will get rebuilt,” he said. “Time has healed a lot of wounds. Two years from now you won’t recognize those areas that flooded.”
But it’s unrealistic to think the city will look exactly the way it did before the hurricane, Sterbcow said. “People want to make ‘Humpty Dumpty’ the way it was, and it will never be that way.” There are mixed messages of hope and hopelessness in some neighborhoods a year after Katrina, with some homes remaining as the storm left them and others with new roofs, windows and paint.
Sterbcow said that two major events have helped to turn the city around: the return of the New Orleans Saints professional football team to the Superdome — a stadium that had been an ugly symbol of the storm’s aftermath; and the decision by the National Association of Realtors trade group to hold its conference in the city.
The reopening of the Superdome brought back residents who had been displaced and scattered to other areas following the hurricane, he said, and restored some desperately needed morale. Sterbcow also credited Tom Stevens, former National Association of Realtors president, with fighting to keep the Realtor association’s conference in the city. The hurricane had cast doubt on whether the city and convention center would be ready to accommodate the conference, which was held last week.
“Rubble, trash, tree limbs, and broken glass were just all over the street,” after the storm last year, Sterbcow said. The convention center was a mess, too, he said. As he gazed around the convention center last week, he said the transformation was incredible. His wife has participated in the Katrina Krewe, a grassroots group that sprung up to clean up the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. There has been “an enormous activist effort,” he said. “I’m 57, I was born and raised here — I have never seen the French Quarter cleaner. I could not believe it.”
He was quick to point out that some of the most successful recovery efforts seem to be fueled from within the community.
“I’m a real believer that you can get things done if you can get people mad enough and motivated enough. And here we are, living proof.”