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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 14:53 GMT
Home a relative term in New Orleans
By Matt Davis
BBC News website, New Orleans

The housing market in New Orleans is a perfect illustration of how this is still a city of two different worlds.

Lower Ninth ward
In the Lower Ninth ward, there are virtually no habitable homes

Six months since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to more than 215,000 homes, sales of anywhere high and dry, with gas and electricity and close to open schools, have gone off the chart.

Families and businesses with the resources to return to New Orleans have driven up prices by some 20%, to an average of more than $225,000 (130,000), say agents.

In the oldest districts, home to some of the most historic housing stock, distinctive French colonial town houses are being snapped up for millions of dollars.

Yet in the Lower Ninth ward, where hundreds died as floodwaters reached roof-level, a few thousand dollars can buy a sorry ruin of a property.

Elsewhere, people are buying houses once beyond their means, but which have halved in value after taking on a few feet of sludge.

'Decision point'

"It is the best of times and the worst of times," says Arthur Sterbcow, a senior manager with estate agents Latter and Blum, who says sales are up more than 40% on February 2005.

Donna and Lucien Dennel
When I was away... all I could think about was coming back... and doing what I am doing now - drinking my drink on my veranda
Donna Dennel

"There are a few people who are being highly speculative, but we are reaching a point when many insurance claims are being settled and real New Orleans people are reaching a decision point on moving back, and that is what is driving the demand."

Two-thirds of the city's pre-Katrina population is living elsewhere and the shortage of decent housing is preventing many who want to return from coming home.

Yet the much-changed city still exerts a strong pull on its population, with residents returning to "frontier" areas, where real estate sales are not booming.

Staying put

Donna and Lucien Dennel live in the Upper Ninth ward, a few blocks from the Industrial Canal that is the dividing line between homes that are obliterated and homes that were almost obliterated.

They own their damaged two-bedroom home, and moved back in January after the mayor re-opened the neighbourhood.

Common Ground volunteer Samu Seto
Volunteers distribute clothes and supplies in hard-hit areas

But they now sleep with a gun under the bed, says Lucien, and are loathe to walk the empty, unlit streets at night.

They have electricity but no gas, and bathe with water boiled from the kettle.

Lucien's in-demand job as a roofing contractor makes it almost impossible for him leave.

But while Donna fears another Katrina unless the city's flood defences are improved, they have no intention of moving on.

"Life is harder now," says Donna. "But when I was away in Texas... all I could think about was coming back to New Orleans and doing what I am doing now - drinking my drink on my veranda.

"We are New Orleans, we don't know anything but New Orleans."

Solidarity

Helping people like the Dennels is a collective called Common Ground, group of young activists providing a lifeline to people living in New Orleans' hardest hit areas.

They run emergency kitchens, distribution centres for clothes and supplies, health care services, and even legal aid.

Frances and Larry Fuselier
It is politically incorrect to say this, but many people who have left New Orleans are better off now than they were when they lived here
Frances Fuselier

Volunteer Samu Seto, from Hawaii, says it is not about charity, but about solidarity.

"We want to see this neighbourhood get back on its feet."

Just the other side of the Industrial Canal, the infamous Lower Ninth ward is open in daylight hours on a look-and-leave basis.

A 200ft (60m) long barge that careened over a collapsed levee is still beached on one side of the canal, where workers are beginning the task of dismantling what has become an infamous symbol of the disaster, and a stopping point for the city's "disaster tours".

Here there are virtually no habitable homes, just ruins and abandoned shells of the sort you can buy for less than $7,500 for the land value alone.

The decision on whether to raze or rebuild what was a predominantly African-American community before Katrina, will be highly politically charged.

Population loss

Some see the new New Orleans as being a far smaller place.

In what appears like another city to the Lower Ninth, Larry and Frances Fuselier are sitting in the drawing room of their $500,000 Garden District home.

Once we have clear signals, the ripples of people returning home will turn into waves
Arthur Sterbcow
Estate agent

"We have to accept that it is never going to be the same again," says Frances.

"I don't believe in bringing people back to live in trailers when there are no jobs and no facilities for them.

"It is politically incorrect to say this, but many people who have left New Orleans are better off now than they were when they lived here," she says.

A recent report by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission estimated that only half the pre-storm population - 247,000 people - would live in the Crescent City by September 2008.

A Brown University study predicted the city, once almost 70% African-American, could lose 80% of its black population.

'Wait for signals'

The longer people are unable to return, the less likely they may be to ever do so.

Last September, evacuee Nicole Johnson, 23, was desperate to return to New Orleans where she had enrolled in college.

She now has a new life in Houston, and her autistic son has found a school. She told the BBC News website that she had nothing to come back to, not even Mardi Gras.

But there are also people like Rolland Brown who commandeered a church bus to evacuate his neighbours but lost his home in New Orleans East to eight feet (2.5m) of flood water.

He is now living out of the Sheraton hotel in downtown New Orleans, where he is the banquet manager.

"People are looking for clarification," says estate agent Arthur Sterbcow.

"Will the government buy out their home, what areas will be earmarked for reconstruction, who will be running the city after the elections?

"Once we have clear signals, the ripples of people returning home will turn into waves."


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