FFL supports community efforts to remove blight in Monroe

Lousiana’s

Foundation for Louisiana (FFL) has been working in partnership with SCIA since 2011 to help residents build their advocacy and organizing capacity while also addressing blight and other community concerns. Recently, FFL also has supported the City of Monroe’s efforts to address the growing problem of blighted and abandoned properties. In doing so, the city is developing local ordinances and revamping some code enforcement practices with technical support from the national non-profit Center for Community Progress.

“The neighborhood I grew up in was a manicured, attractive, well-populated area. Forty years later, it’s now overgrown lots and abandoned houses. That brings me pain. I want to see the neighborhood return to my childhood days.”

That is how Eva Dyann Wilson, a member of the Southside Community Involvement Association (SCIA), explains the reason her group has been so active around blight in the City of Monroe in northeast Louisiana. Growing up in the Atkins Quarter of Monroe, Wilson says it was considered a “neighborhood of destination,” and the SCIA and others hope that it can be once again.

Formed by many of the current group’s parents more than 50 years ago, the SCIA according to Wilson was created to help residents have a voice at the city council. The group is gearing up for a meeting with Gregg Smith, executive director of Keep Monroe Beautiful and the city’s “blight czar”, as well as for community clean-up days and for their annual back-to-school project that supports the area’s only remaining school.

Foundation for Louisiana (FFL) has been working in partnership with SCIA since 2011 to help residents build their advocacy and organizing capacity while also addressing blight and other community concerns. Recently, FFL also has supported the City of Monroe’s efforts to address the growing problem of blighted and abandoned properties. In doing so, the city is developing local ordinances and revamping some code enforcement practices with technical support from the national non-profit Center for Community Progress.

“Blight and abandoned properties are the effects of disinvestment and neglect of our low-income communities and affect neighborhood safety and health,” said Alfredo Cruz, FFL’s Vice-President of Programs & Special Initiatives. “By working with the City of Monroe and local groups such as the Southside Community Involvement Association – we hope to improve local policies to address blight and ultimately revitalize communities.”

Monroe is one of the poorest cities in the nation for its size; one in three people live in poverty. Booker T. is one of the poorest neighborhoods in an already impoverished city. Primarily an African-American community, the conditions of blight reflect the challenges faced by low-income families in trying to maintain residences in the face of challenges that include flooding and declining property values.

As a result, the city under Mayor Jamie Mayo has started a “Fight the Blight” campaign and intends to introduce new ordinances in September. Part of that campaign is a systematic mapping of conditions in the various communities, with the help of a group of high school and university students.

One of them is 19-year-old Rokeya Bilton, who says blight never stood out as an issue for her because it was something that was just always there. A student at Grambling State University, Bilton lives on the east side of Monroe in the Booker T neighborhood, where vacant and derelict homes and overgrown lots are common. But, until she started working with the City of Monroe’s “Fight the Blight” community mapping project, the conditions of properties that surrounded her wasn’t something she paid a lot of attention to.

Bilton and her seven colleagues — all residents of Monroe — are walking Districts 3, 4 and 5 to determine the number and location of vacant and abandoned properties (including both blighted homes and lots). Using iPhones loaded with an arcGIS mapping tool, the students take pictures of each property and then answer several questions about the conditions. As of the end of June, students had mapped nearly 8,000 properties.

“(The) first week was interesting to me because it was my neighborhood we shot [pictures of]” Bilton said. “I never paid attention to it, and this program gave me a great opportunity to. It changes your outlook on things. These blighted properties and lots can be turned into homes for many families in need in our city.”

Mayo, the city’s mayor, appreciated Foundation for Louisiana’s collaboration on the effort.

“Foundation for Louisiana has proven to be very beneficial in providing assistance in what we have termed Fight the Blight,” Mayo said. “First, they came in and provided expertise in rewriting our codes and giving them more teeth. Secondly, they provided hands on training for a team of student workers being utilized during the summer to survey our community using smart phones and geo-mapping.

“Those maps,” Mayo added, “will help us identify areas of blight and put us in a better position to address them.”