A Big Easy battle over rent in historic apartments

AP News
Posted: Nov 03, 2011 1:58 PM
A Big Easy battle over rent in historic apartments

Saxophone riffs from an unseen street musician waft up three floors to the balcony of Leslie Snadowsky's French Quarter apartment, punctuated by the bustle of waiters, bartenders, tourists and street people wandering among restaurants and shops below and enhanced by the view of sun glinting off the spires of nearby St. Louis Cathedral.

But inside, the hardwood floors are covered with sticky notes marking chinks and spots of rot. On the walls, along with paintings of plantations, are photographs of water spots _ dated to note when they were taken and taped beneath the stains themselves.

"These pictures were taken in 2009," Snadowsky says, pointing to two photos. "The damage, basically, hasn't been touched."

Snadowsky lives in the historic Upper Pontalba Building, and she's the ringleader of a group of angry tenants who are squabbling with their landlord, the cash-strapped City of New Orleans.

"The Upper Pontalba Building is not a luxury apartment building. But over the years, we've been paying luxury apartment rents," Snadowsky says, explaining her objections to the most recent rent hike, from $1,715 to $2,389 for her apartment, a boost of nearly 40 percent.

Money isn't the only issue.

"I would have stayed here forever, that was my intention since I moved in," says retired attorney Bill Walker, sipping a beer at the Pontalba Cafe _ two stories down from the third-story Pontalba walk-up he and his wife recently left. He complained about lack of maintenance, unreasonable lease requirements and what he described as overall shoddy treatment.

Snadowsky says she suspects the city wants to rent the apartments to corporate interests or perhaps reward contributors to the campaigns of the mayor and City Council.

"That's absolutely, unequivocally, false," said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who appoints the board that oversees the building. "The goal is to get a good value for city-owned property."

In this case the property is steeped in history and planted firmly in the heart of a neighborhood that defines New Orleans.

Designed and built around 1850, it's believed to be among the first commercially rented apartment buildings in the United States.

Built for Micaela Leonarda Almonester de Pontalba, a New Orleans-born heiress who married a French aristocrat, the Upper Pontalba and its state-owned twin, the Lower Pontalba are block-long, four-story, slate-roofed red brick structures. They bracket Jackson Square, an urban green space surrounded by an iron fence and flagstone sidewalks occupied daily by street artists, musicians and tarot card readers.

Interwoven in the elaborate iron columns and railings that adorn the building's exterior are the baroness' initials, AP. High ceilings, hardwood floors and marble mantels are among the amenities. On an adjacent corner sits the Cabildo, the late-18th-century building where the Louisiana Purchase was completed. Next to that is the 1850s-era cathedral visited in the 1980s by Pope John Paul II and where the archbishop who delivered President John F. Kennedy's eulogy was recently buried.

A short walk from the Mississippi River, the French Market and some of the city's best known restaurants, the square is at the center of the city's raucous New Year's Eve celebrations.

Frank Pizzolato is the Landrieu-appointed director of the French Market Corporation, which includes the agency that runs the building. He acknowledges myriad longstanding repair and maintenance issues that the city is working to resolve. Despite those issues, Pizzolato says, the Upper Pontalba could command higher rents even as the agency's board of directors seeks to make upgrades and repairs.

He backs the contention with appraisals done under previous administrations in 2003 and 2006.

"They would have an appraisal done in a given year. The following year they would act on that appraisal ... In every case, as they addressed rate increases, the tenants would come in and object to it," Pizzolato said. The result, he argues, was rents that didn't keep up with market value.

Appraisals done by the same firm in 2003 and 2006 appear to bear him out. They recommended rent boosts far higher than those eventually collected. The recommended rent for one unit in the 2003 appraisal was $1,945 well above the $1,277 set at the time. Three years later the rent was up to $1,430 below both the 2003 recommendation and the 2006 recommendation of $2,378.

Snadowsky counters that the appraisals put the Upper Pontalba _ with no elevators, no off-street parking, no security and a host of maintenance issues _ on a level with other luxury apartments in and near the French Quarter that have more amenities and fewer problems. A better comparison would be the building's state-owned twin, the Lower Pontalba, she argues. Pizzolato argues that the Lower Pontalba, a mirror image of the Upper Pontalba on the outside, has fewer apartments and has undergone even less renovation, with appraisals indicating some well-heeled owners have done major upgrades themselves.

Bruised feelings and resentments are evident all around.

"They never cashed my September rent check and they say I never sent it," Walker said. "They make it sound like everyone here was a bunch of deadbeats."

Snadowsky, a freelance reporter and 16-year resident of the Upper Pontalba, complained about harassment. She said she is suddenly no longer allowed to keep a bin in a public area for her overflow mail. Sam Scandaliato complained at a recent City Council hearing about the loss of some $1,500 worth of artwork and Mardi Gras decorations he said he had stored neatly beneath stairs at his Upper Pontalba apartment for years.

Scandaliato says he wasn't warned that his property would be disposed of. Pizzolato, with a tone of exasperation, insisted in an interview that Scandaliato was warned in an August letter delivered to all tenants. He presented a copy of the letter, stating that officials would enforce longstanding lease rules against storing personal items in common areas.

The back-and-forth may ultimately be settled in court. A lawsuit by the Upper Pontalba Building Tenants Association alleges that meetings in which the building's governing board approved rate increases violated state law regarding advance notice and open debates. It raises questions about the accuracy and fairness of the appraisals, including allegations that they may have been affected by closed-door discussions with real estate brokers.

A state district judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the rent increases. An attorney for the residents said they could ask a state appeal court to grant the preliminary injunction.

Aside from the legalities, Snadowsky believes the board should consider quality of life issues. The board, she says, "is under no obligation to inflate rents to create revenue." She added that attracting and retaining local residents should be a priority.

Berni says the rent increases are consistent with the mayor's aggressive efforts to increase efficiencies and trim costs in the budget he inherited upon taking office in 2010. Asked if the city owes any deference to longtime residents, Berni replies: "This administration owes it to the taxpayers of the city to get a good value for city-owned property."