NEW ORLEANS — Large conventions and small meetings have steered clear of the Crescent City since the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. So just how pleased was the region to host the recent National Association of Realtors annual convention?

Talk about a holiday present … it was also the biggest real estate story of the year because of its impact on the ravaged region.

“I felt like painting a huge blue ‘R’ on top of the Superdome and renaming it the NAR Dome,” said longtime native Arthur Sterbcow, executive director of Latter & Blum Realtors, a New Orleans-based residential chain. “In the past year, the president of NAR has visited more often than the president of the United States.”

Approximately 25,000 members of the nation’s largest trade organization attended business meetings, political forums, and educational and training sessions over four days at the Morial Convention Center and injected more than $34 million into the New Orleans economy.

The confab was the first major event in the city — other than New Orleans Saints football games — in more than 14 months. From cab drivers to hotel desk clerks, bartenders to tour operators, the city appeared grateful and relieved that a convention crowd had finally returned.

The bustling, energetic scene at the convention center was in direct contrast to the sadness, destruction and frustration vividly portrayed in news reports during the first days following the Aug. 29, 2005, catastrophe.

While this is a city of hope, despair definitely lingers. Several neighborhoods in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward have few residents and even less business activity. For example, only 100 of the 1,600 hundred homes in the Holy Cross neighborhood are occupied, while another 200 have trailers in the yards — temporary residences as work continues on the main home, according to Stephanie Bruno, a representative from the Preservation Resource Center.

“We thought it was very important to keep our pledge to New Orleans,” said Pat Vredevoogd Combs of Grand Rapids, Mich., NAR’s new president. “We heard rumors that people would get sick, that there would be safety issues, that the rooms wouldn’t be ready. We had several research teams visit New Orleans since January and not one person reported that they felt we should move the conference.”

Many of the attendees brought their work boots and signed up to help in the city’s recovery effort, which included a Realtor-built Habitat for Humanity home, framing other homes, cleaning and beautifying City Park, sorting books at the public library and spiffing up De La Salle High School.

Sterbcow’s realty firm lost 24 of its 28 offices as a result of “the storm.” He reported that all 28 are now open and doing business, an example of the resilience of many local operators.

“What other areas of the country often don’t understand is that on Aug. 29, 2005, 1.3 million people in the New Orleans area got an eviction notice,” Sterbcow said. “I would estimate that about 1.1 million have come back. But we need more businesses here because we can’t get people into homes without jobs.”

Even with the massive rebuilding effort, many local residents and rehabilitation supervisors still are handcuffed by snafus in the recovery system. There are stories almost daily about an unfulfilled insurance claim, incorrect building materials order, and the lack of timely, skilled laborers. One report detailed how a temporary living trailer finally arrived on an owner’s front yard but the owner had no keys to the unit.

The biggest challenge for homeowners — especially those displaced by the storm — is the skyrocketing cost of homeowners insurance. For example, James O’Bourne, a section editor for the New Orleans Times Picayune and a member of the newspaper’s team that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, saw his homeowner’s annual premium jump from pre-Katrina $800 to more than $5,000 on his new home.

O’Bourne, one of 13 newspaper newsroom staffers to lose their homes as a result of the floods, was given a three-month respite on his mortgage payments from his lender. However, he still needed a place for his family of four to live. He decided he could not afford the cost of holding down two homes, plus credit cards and other family expenditures, so he sold his once-flooded home to a neighbor who was rehabilitating other homes in the O’Bourne’s Lakeview neighborhood.

“I came out OK on the real estate, but we had a lot of contents that were not covered,” O’Bourne said. “Of course, you can’t replace the personal things.”

So many things still need to be replaced here — from homes to infrastructure to convention business. The Realtors chose to keep their convention pledge and this city will never forget it.

Tom Kelly’s new book “Cashing In on a Second Home in Mexico: How to Buy, Rent and Profit from Property South of the Border” was written with Mitch Creekmore, senior vice president of Houston-based Stewart International. The book is available in retail stores, on Amazon.com and on tomkelly.com. Tom can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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