New Orleans pays to move tenants out of dangerous apartments

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is paying to relocate all the remaining residents of a bankrupt apartment complex where people said the owner’s negligence forced them to live in unsanitary conditions with rampant mold, rodents and a broken pipe that discharged raw sewage.

The rare move started last week and was expected to take around two weeks. Once all residents are at Oakmont Apartments, the 336-unit complex will be vacated and secured until code and security violations are resolved, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

“Conditions at Oakmont Apartments have become unsafe and unhealthy for residents due to landlord negligence and lack of concern for their tenants,” Cantrell said last week. “It is imperative that we address this issue head-on and relocate tenants to safe alternative housing immediately.”

The City Council said it plans to put tenants in hotels for up to three months while “housing navigators” search for affordable apartments, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. The New Orleans Housing Authority and the nonprofit Unity of Greater New Orleans are among those involved.

Oakmont is the largest of five New Orleans apartment complexes that owner Joshua Bruno placed under bankruptcy protection in January to avoid foreclosure. Bruno did not immediately return a message to the newspaper last week seeking comment on the city’s move.

Bruno claims he has spent millions fixing up rundown properties, only to see conditions worsen with the coronavirus pandemic and damage from Hurricane Ida on August 29. Bruno also blamed Fannie Mae for delaying insurance payments in the midst of a foreclosure fight.

Fannie Mae has argued that Bruno cannot be trusted to run Oakmont. While residents live in misery, he transferred millions from Oakmont and other properties over the past year to various entities he controls, the lender alleges. Residents and advocates have urged US Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill to wrest control from Bruno and appoint a trustee to manage them. The hearing is set for May 23.

Hannah Adams, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Southeast Louisiana, represents several Oakmont tenants and said they all want to leave. She called the management’s offer “extraordinary” and said she provided “a full mattress,” including hotel stays, help finding a new home, a deposit and two months’ rent to start.

It is not known how much the evacuation plan will cost. The City Council said it aims to take advantage of federal emergency rental assistance money. Cantrell called it “not ideal,” but better than leaving residents at Oakmont.

Adams said between 100 and 120 residents had stayed. She said homeless service organizations have been trying to remove squatters from the property.

The administration cited Bruno last summer for code violations at Oakmont. Bruno has appealed.

In February, the City Council began offering relocation assistance to remaining Oakmont tenants. Tuesday’s announcement marked a change from optional relocation to a forced departure.

“People are being forced to leave because of Josh Bruno’s and Westbank Holdings’ history of negligence, not because of the city,” Adams said.

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