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Baghdad on the Bayou: The Shock and Awe of Contractor Fraud Hits the Middle Class Hard-and Not Just in New Orleans

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“Out on the road, trying to make my way. Another town, another show to play…Louisiana’s calling me home.”

--Kim Carson


Kim Carson

In December, the City Council of New Orleans gave the Housing and Development Authority of New Orleans (HANO) the go ahead to tear down 4600 public housing apartments and replace then with 744 units. There are an estimated 12,000 homeless living in NOLA, an increase of 6,000 from pre-Katrina numbers. Developers will be adding 1,000 market rate apartments which will price out at $400,000 and up. The public housing story topped a very short news cycle in the national media for about 24 hours. Meanwhile, the problems facing middle class neighborhoods, black and white, have been all but ignored.

Trying to Go Home to Lakeview

YouTube Interview

Roots singer and songwriter, Kim Carson, is one of 200,000 people who have not been able to return to New Orleans since the floodwaters of Katrina delivered an almost fatal body blow to Louisiana in late August 2005. In Carson’s case, a scam contractor and the demands of trying to make a living as a touring musician have taken a huge emotional toll and delayed reconstruction of her Lakeview property by over two years and counting. Along with journalist keith harmon snow, we visited with Carson in October 2007—the lower level windows had still not been replaced in her combination home and rental apartment—a structure located in what was once a solid middle class, mainly white neighborhood.

Stories like Carson’s tell a different story than that of the displaced public housing residents, but it is a story which demonstrates how a disaster like Katrina becomes the great leveler. For residents of New Orleans, whether you are waiting for Road Home money to repair your underinsured home in the ninth ward, hoping to gain access to your public housing unit in St. Bernard, or in Carson’s case, an honest contractor to repair your flooded property in Lakeview, you are still trying to go home over two years after disaster struck. No matter how you cut it, rich or poor, you are all refugees in America. Make no mistake about it, when disaster strikes and the wounded lie helpless, hyenas will always gather for the kill.

Kim Carson is a strong, confident, pretty southern woman who looks you straight in the eye, offering no nonsense, clear-cut, honest talk. This is not a woman who is a push-over, or who has to flirt or manipulate to get things done, gain your attention or make a point. Never one to “believe in a fairy godmother or Daddy taking care of me,” Carson told us that it wasn’t Mother Nature that exhausted her, but “people and opportunists” who stymied her recovery efforts. As far as Carson is concerned, her home insurance was adequate, and the city did its job and cleaned up the mess on the street. Finding an honest contractor was another story.

But inner strength aside, Carson looks and sounds tired—exhausted is more like it. (Take a look at her publicity still and then another at the woman on our video if you don’t believe what stress can do to an individual) Her voice quavers almost imperceptibly and she bites her lower lip as she describes to keith snow how difficult and gut wrenching it was to pitch personal possessions and mementoes that had traveled with her from “Dallas to Chicago to New Orleans” out on the trash heap after the ruination of the floodwaters. Carson has a story to tell and it is one of heartbreak and frustration and love of friends who stayed and friends who were forced to leave just because they could not take it anymore. Carson is humble and does not promote her music or career. Right now, she just wants to find some stability and comfort in a New Orleans home base while she is on the road in Costa Rica. Admittedly, she now splits her time between New Orleans and Texas, but that fact of geography does not take away from the dedication she feels towards Louisiana, calling it “a beautiful part of the country, something worth fighting for.”

One look around the lower level of the building that miraculously survived ten feet of water, tells the tale of how an unscrupulous contractor has wrecked her restoration efforts and replaced dreams with nightmares. Water shut-off valves were buried in the walls with no access panels in the sheetrock, extension cords replaced code wiring, salvaged materials substituted for new insulation—and these were only a few of the obvious and dangerous code violations in Carson’s building. She has since found a new contractor, but the emotional and financial damage have already been done. If Kim Carson could fall prey to the scam artists in search of quick easy money, how many other victims are out there? Is there a database that measures emotional as well as financial loss?

Louisiana Tries


Charles Marceaux

Charles Marceaux is the executive director of The Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors (LSLBC) and is in charge of trying to do something about opportunistic fraud. Operating under legislative mandate, the fifteen member board is composed of contractors appointed by the Governor, the idea being that the industry will police itself.

Marceaux recognizes that part of the reason middle class neighborhoods such as Gentilly and Lakeview still look like ghost towns is that “some people are just giving up.” In a phone interview Marceaux explained that policing contractor fraud is a daunting task. The director of LSLBC really does own and ride a white horse, but admits that riding to the rescue of citizens is a challenge.

When we told him about the extension cords buried in Kim Carson’s basement walls, Marceaux did not seem surprised. His office prosecutes over 1,000 violations a year, catching far more than ever appear in official hearings. Why? Enforcement is difficult when the scam artists simply vanish after being cited. Currently LSLBC has a backlog of “somewhere between 200-300 complaints that require investigation,” Marceaux added.

Out of 25 field personnel, Marceaux assigned 10 full time investigators to the greater New Orleans area. “We have 21,000 licensed contractors, but for every one licensed, there are four or five that are not,” he said, adding that catching up with fraud is “like lightning striking while we happen to be watching.”

The Louisiana Legislature has enacted several new consumer protection laws that Marceaux says will limit fraud. The cost of “home improvement” has been capped at $75,000 to limit insurance and contractor fraud. No longer will contractors have the ability to file liens against homeowners who refuse to pay because of inferior work or outright theft. Finally, LSLBC inspectors now have the ability to immediately issue citations in the field without an administrative hearing.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)
 

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Thanks for pointing out how not just poor blacks h... by Mac McKinney on Saturday, Dec 29, 2007 at 8:40:02 AM
I use to work for a short time for an electrical c... by Bob Gormley on Saturday, Dec 29, 2007 at 10:55:02 AM
I am sure you know that contractor fraud in Iraq i... by Georgianne Nienaber on Saturday, Dec 29, 2007 at 5:43:21 PM