You have probably noticed the deluge of articles the last few weeks about New Orleans, the aftermath and the recovery following Hurricane Katrina. It still seems hard to fully comprehend the tragedy of it a decade later; so much destruction of architecturally significant communities and, most overwhelmingly, of the tapestry of people that called these history-rich districts home.
I had the opportunity to visit the area in December of 2005, just a few months after the storm, to help families sort through the muck. As our volunteer group was carefully clearing out kitchen cabinets - being vigilant of snakes or other creepy crawlies that still lived in water-filled Tupperware, or taping refrigerators shut to drag to the street with rotting shrimp inside that had been ready for a family meal before the storm hit - one of the families we were helping showed up and stood for a long time in the living spaces just taking it all in. Slowly, they began digging through the muck in their bedrooms. (This was the Lower Ninth Ward and the water line had almost reached the ceiling.) Then came the shouts of joy as they found precious and irreplaceable family pictures that were water damaged, but salvageable.
The truth was, however, that this family had come to say goodbye to the home that they had decided that they would never return to after that day. They weren’t sure where they would end up, but it wouldn’t be the Ninth Ward and most likely not New Orleans. Too much damage was done; emotionally and physically.
It is that family I think about when I read the articles of the last few weeks and take a look back at those images. The landscape of New Orleans is forever changed; scarred in many ways, but stronger in others.
Building rehabilitations have played a major role in the strength of the city over the last decade. They are representative of the resourcefulness that is necessary after destruction, and in the case of the GO Zone incentives, the importance of public policy to help rebuild. Stories like those of the New Orleans Healing Center are a testament to how the reinvention of a building can play a part in healing a community.
~ Katherine Ferguson
Marketing Manager, MHA
One can’t think of New Orleans without conjuring visions of shotgun houses or French Quarter balconies. Their architecture – along with a great deal of diverse architecture in the city – reveals the special kind of culture in the “Big Easy.” When Hurricane Katrina hit, it was uncertain how much of this fabric could be retained, but most agreed that it was important to rebuild.
For nearly 40 years, the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit (HTC) program has incentivized preservation across the country; from blighted to bustling communities. In the case of natural disasters where there is widespread, catastrophic and costly damage, this type of incentive is essential.
Katrina presented an overwhelming burden for those looking to revitalize buildings of significance in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. Swift action by Congress and President Bush established the Gulf Opportunities Zone Act of 2005 (GO Zone), a bill that among other things increased the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit to 26% from the normal 20% for Gulf Coast regions affected by Katrina as well as Hurricanes Rita and Wilma that hit only a few months later.
Originally scheduled to sunset in 2008, the bill was extended several times and eventually ended in 2011 when the rate reverted to the regular 20%. Nearly 150 projects, with total development costs in excess of $460 million, benefitted from the program in New Orleans and Baton Rouge alone.
The GO Zone initiative was integral in these projects, but also important was the robust Louisiana State Commercial TaxCredit. This 25% tax credit incentive was implemented in 2002 to benefit income-producing historic buildings in Louisiana’s Downtown Development Districts. In 2007, historic buildings in certified Cultural Districts were made program-eligible.
Other Gulf Coast states have HTC programs, such as Mississippi and Alabama, also offering the tax incentive at a rate of 25%, but came after Katrina; Mississippi began their tax credit program in 2006 and Alabama in 2013. Unfortunately, the Alabama Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program is set to sunset this year unless legislation can be passed to extend it. Rounding out the Gulf Coast states, Texas implemented their 25% HTC in 2015, and Florida has yet to pass HTC legislation.
Katrina Case Study: New Orleans Healing Center
The Universal Furniture Building at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch dates back to 1887. Its storied history includes time as a bakery and a bargain furniture store. In 2005, the building survived Hurricane Katrina relatively intact while the communities around it suffered.
The building is located in the Faubourg Marigny National Register Historic District, but is a neighbor to the St. Roche, St. Claude and Bywater Districts as well. Purchased by New Orleans commercial developer, Pres Kabacoff, and his wife Sallie Ann Glassman, the building found new life as the New Orleans Healing Center in the fall of 2011. The duo rehabilitated the building to house a grocery co-op, yoga studio, coffee shop, performance areas, restaurant, and community meeting spaces.
The rehabilitation itself included removing a non-historic aluminum screen and brick veneer on the St. Claude and St. Roch elevations in order to restore original facades. With MacRostie Historic Advisors help, the project generated $2.36 in federal GO Zone HTCs, which was nearly doubled when coupled with the 25% Louisiana State HTC. And for a community that was rebuilding, it provided much needed jobs.
Four years since opening its doors, the Healing Center is growing in popularity and continuing to offerservices to the community.
Preparing for the next Katrina
Hurricane Katrina gets top billing for natural disasters in the United State’s recent history, but FEMAreports over 600 major disaster declarations in U.S. territories since the storm in 2005. These disasters include fire, flooding, earthquakes, tornadoes, and more; none of which are discriminating in their destruction.
Steps are being taken by Congress to provide relief to disaster areas declared from 2012 through 2015 with the introduction of the National Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2015 in July. The bill largely follows the guidelines set forth by the GO Zone legislation, increasing the federal HTC rate to 26% in affected areas. No doubt that similar bills will be introduced in the future to account for disasters yet to come.
The passing of legislation of this nature signals confidence in our leaders that HTC programs are instrumental in economic development, as well as an important tool to save our historic resources for future generations. And when reflecting on the devastation of Katrina and the brutal power of natural disasters on our built and human landscape, we look to the places that are familiar to find home again.