greg_mathis_web.jpgIt’s been five years since hurricanes Katrina and Wilma stormed into New Orleans, destroying lives, families and entire communities.

The city’s restoration has been slow going. Early on, returning homeowners wanting to rebuild found themselves bogged down in red tape. The last two years, however, has brought about significant changes in the city’s landscape and once-devastated neighborhoods are starting to thrive.

The two storms left New Orleans with more than 65,000 abandoned homes and empty lots. Anyone living in an urban environment can tell you that such blight will eventually lead to both an increase in crime and a decrease in the quality of life for community residents.

And that’s exactly what was happening in New Orleans, until local officials and community groups began to develop programs designed to do away with urban blight.

State and city officials began using money allocated for the city’s recovery efforts to tear down unsafe buildings. They also began to buy abandoned lots, using federal dollars from another program, selling them to homeowners in the community. The lots are often converted into community gardens or used to build additional homes.

Thanks to these efforts and others, the number of blighted homes in New Orleans has dropped 32 percent in the last two years.

Though the city still leads the nation in its percentage of abandoned buildings and vacant lot, things are looking up. Residents are steadily moving back to the city; as the population grows, the number of blighted homes will continue to decrease. By decreasing blight, New Orleans is going against the current national trend.

As the Great Recession drags on and more families lose their jobs and then their homes, many urban areas are seeing an increase in abandoned properties. If the housing and financial markets don’t rebound soon, the nation make have to look to New Orleans – a city many didn’t think deserved to be rebuilt – as a model for reducing blight and transforming communities.

Judge Greg Mathis is a national figure known for his advocacy campaigns for equal justice.  His inspirational life story of a street youth who rose from jail to judge has provided hope to millions who watch him on the award-winning television court show Judge Mathis each day.