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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A city policy involving demolitions, inspections, community meetings and Saturday morning elbow grease is reviving New Orleans neighborhoods at a faster rate than most expected after Hurricane Katrina put 80 percent of the city underwater six years ago.
"This is a total groundbreaker for the city," said Allison Plyer, chief demographer of the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
"There's never been this intensive an effort previously to combat blight."
Even before the levees broke, New Orleans struggled with many of the classic elements that produce vacant homes and empty lots: systematic population loss, a troubled economy and crime.
Then Katrina accelerated blight. Some 110,000 New Orleans residents did not return to their homes in the five years since the storm, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In October 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, then just six months in office, launched a blight initiative he said was designed to turn around 10,000 properties by 2014.
By the end of this year, city officials say, nearly 4,000 properties will fit that bill, lowering the city's total number of blighted properties to less than 42,000, according to data from the United States Postal Service, which tracks such figures as vacant homes where mail is not collected.
"What happened is we got better at what we're supposed to be doing and that, by getting more aggressive, property owners know we're coming and know we mean consequences so they start to self-correct," Landrieu told Reuters.
In the early post-Katrina years, billions of federal recovery dollars helped the city buy abandoned properties and either demolish them or sell them to neighbors, as well as encourage residents to return and rehabilitate their homes.
Then came Jeff Hebert, the city's inaugural director of blight policy and neighborhood revitalization.
He has sped up property inspections, held regular community meetings and implemented little changes like redirecting workers in a jobs program to mowing overgrown lots in devastated neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, which hadn't seen a lawnmower blade in years.
Herbert also helped the city steer away from tax sales of foreclosed properties, which can drag on for three years, to sheriff's sales, which award new property owners a clear title immediately upon purchase.
"That may be our single biggest policy shift," Hebert told Reuters. "Our goal is not necessarily to demolish houses but the end goal is to get houses back into commerce."
Landrieu said the new measures are designed to address his administration's three priorities: crime, jobs and schools.
"Blight is the thread that depends on whether or not we have success in those areas," he said. "It's a major threat to public safety and quality of life."
Despite the city's efforts, about 25 percent of New Orleans housing remained vacant in 2010, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Title issues, contractor fraud and rebuilding costs are saddling recovery, and some residents say the city isn't acting fast enough to prevent neighborhoods from falling behind.
Take Rose Johnson. Her neat, two-story home in the city's Broadmoor neighborhood took nearly 8 feet of water and she spent $130,000 to return it back to its original splendor.
Her neighbor did not. In the years that passed since the storm, the vacant Italianate home next to Johnson's receded, as if reclaimed by the earth.
Pink exterior plaster is crumbled at the ground and this month, the stairs caved in. Johnson, 65, took it upon herself to mow the grass and hired an exterminator to set baits around her house so the rats next door wouldn't infest her own.
She said she called the city several times but has seen no progress. "It's a mess. I want them to tear it down," she said of city officials. "It's not fit to live in."
Demolition creates its own challenges. Some community organizers complain the city leaves the foundation behind on houses it demolishes, preventing lots from reverting to green space and creating another version of blight. The city has demolished over 2,100 blighted properties so far this year.
"Demolitions are a mixed bag," Plyer said. "If you do a lot of demolition then you have a dumping problem. People come and dump tires and debris and trash."
Population recovery is one reason New Orleans appears to be advancing on blight. Even though the New Orleans population is 21 percent less than before the storm, the population more than doubled between 2006 and 2010, to 343,800.
Katrina helped mobilize the city's public-private web of civic and neighborhood organizations and city departments, says Margery Austin Turner, vice president for research of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy analysis group based in Washington, D.C.
"I don't think you would have seen that kind of capacity in New Orleans prior to Katrina," she told Reuters.
Evidence of that is a section of Broadmoor where a development corporation set up by the neighborhood association in 2006 is rehabbing homes it purchased with $5 million from the Clinton Global Initiative. On one Friday in late November, 200 volunteers built a new playground for the nearby school.
"Our residents have skin in this game," said David Winkler-Schmit, communications director for the association. "We know what we need."
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton