06 December 2010

Real Estate Computer Crash Brings Industry to its Knees

New Orleanians don't blithely throw around comparisons to Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill -- but for those whose lives and livelihoods are tied to buying and selling real estate, such analogies are often heard six weeks into the meltdown of Orleans Parish' property records database.

On Oct. 25, Civil District Court's computer system experienced an unprecedented failure. The servers containing all of the conveyance and mortgage records crashed. The company hired in August 2009 to back up the records had stopped receiving good data in July, and it lost the older data in monthly purges. A batch of fully updated records was recovered, but it was garbled and deemed unusable.

The court eventually was able to recover digital conveyance records from the 1980s up to March 27, 2009, and mortgage data through Aug. 6, 2009. But there's a lot left to do. The consolidated real estate records office is left with nearly 180,000 documents that exist only on paper. To make matters worse, the indexes from them are part of the lost computer databases.

The lack of up-to-date records could bring the local real estate market to near standstill. Without good records, title insurance companies are reluctant to underwrite home sales, or even some refinancing deals, for fear that something could have been filed in the past two years that calls into question the true owner of the property or reflects outstanding debts.

Real estate industry insiders differ on the extent of the damage the shutdown has caused. Some, like the head of the local Realtors association, are predicting massive layoffs at title, inspection and appraisal companies. On the other hand, property sales were off by only about a third in November, dropping from 751 in September to 485 in the month after the computer crash, according to the conveyance office. But the real damage may not be fully reflected in that month, as title research for some of those closing had been completed before the records crashed.

Losses to Industry

The consensus seems to be that if the records can't be fully restored soon, the losses will compound, bankrupting some smaller real estate services companies, depleting the city's tax revenue and quashing important commercial deals.

Real estate agents have thousands of dollars in commissions sitting on the table, and title attorneys, researchers, home inspectors, appraisers and termite contractors are watching their work dry up, said Joe Ory, president of the 4,200-member New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

"We have buyers and sellers standing on the roofs of houses and they're drowning in debt," Ory said. "The clerk is trying to drain the swamp...but we have to rescue the people on the roofs. Long-term, draining the swamp is the right thing to do. But right now, buyers and sellers are literally losing their properties and their money."

Even if Ory's pessimism isn't universally shared, nobody disputes that prospective buyers are losing out on low mortgage rates that they had locked in for 30 days, while sellers are being forced to make mortgage payments they hadn't anticipated.

Buyers getting desperate

Other cities, such as Detroit, have struggled with gaps of a few months in their real estate data because of delays in processing paper records, and New Orleans lost about three months of data during Hurricane Katrina, when nearly every city service was knocked out.

But real estate agents and title attorneys say they have never seen two servers full of data knocked out simultaneously, all the backup systems fail and 21 months of records disappear in one fell swoop.

"Only in New Orleans, man. I mean, I love my city, but this is crazy," said Jerome Winder, a real estate agent for 25 years.

Winder said his clients are getting desperate. One elderly woman had scheduled a closing so she could be in her home in eastern New Orleans by Christmas, but that looks impossible now. The title company still must do a title search, something that's extremely difficult without a computerized index.

A condominium purchase Winder was handling was ready to close, but the title company slammed on the brakes when it discovered an old lien on the complex's roof. The lien was released in the last year, he said, but until researchers can find a record of that in the database, the deal can't go forward.

Windward Group, a contractor hired by Clerk of Civil District Court Dale Atkins, is ready to input 10,000 documents a week, but at that rate, the 60,000 missing conveyance records won't be in the database until at least the end of the year, Atkins said. Time-consuming process

Meanwhile, nobody knows how long it will take to re-enter the 119,000 missing mortgage records. Atkins said she's spoken with several data entry companies, but none can meet her desire to have the work done in weeks, rather than months.

"It's not about cost, it's about time," she said. She's paying Windward Group close to $50,000 to restore all the conveyance data, but nobody has been able to come up with a comparable plan for the mortgage data.

"One company wanted to do a sample of 2,000 instruments before telling us how fast they can do it," she said. "Well, I don't have time for you to do a sample."

Any gap in either database leaves a cloud over a property's history and makes title companies queasy about underwriting deals. Title companies can be sued if they guarantee a property has a clear title and it later turns out that it doesn't. There are ways around the crash, but they're expensive and time-consuming -- and they're not foolproof. Brent Laliberte, founder of Bayou Title, said his title researchers and attorneys have been able to complete title research by visiting different city offices, including the Notarial Archives, which were not affected by the crash.

But money judgements, mortgage releases and state tax liens don't appear in the archives, and Laliberte said he's talking with underwriters to figure out whether they can cover deals without knowing if those documents might have been filed.

"As significant as that is, it's not like it can't be done," Laliberte said. "You throw enough people at it and you can get it done. Toward the end of the month, there should be a number of deals that start happening."

Six weeks after the crash, Atkins and her staff are working extended hours and weekends. She has brought in extra help from the Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Helena Parish clerks' offices. She's paying recruits $13 an hour to do data entry, but so far they're still trying to finish logging the data from documents filed since the crash.

The response to the crisis was halting at first. It took nearly a month to bypass anti-tampering software designed to prevent anyone from retroactively entering a document into the database.

'It was the court's IT system'

But confusion also stemmed from a convoluted system in which the court clerk, an independently elected official, is the custodian of the property records but the technology she relies on to organize the records is controlled by the Civil Court Judges, who meet in private to hire contractors and decide on court spending.

Judge Piper Griffin, chairwoman of the court's information technology committee, and Judge Rose Ledet, who becomes the chief judge in January, both acknowledged that the system failure was the court's responsibility. But they also said that once all of the recoverable data were extracted from the crashed servers, the task of restoring the records fell to Atkins.

"There's no question it was the court's IT system and the failing was with the court's IT," Griffin said. "It's just unfortunate for Dale that it's all falling on her shoulders now."

Atkins is clearly agitated that the judges haven't held someone accountable for the crash.

At the time of the crash, the court had a two-person IT staff. Griffin acknowledged some data may have been lost when the chief technology officer, Tynia Landry, followed instructions from Dell Inc. to troubleshoot the problem to try to get the servers back up and running.

But Griffin said she blames the server failure not on the local staff but on the contractor, a large multinational data-management firm called i365, based in California, that took over the job in August 2009.

The company was backing up the records and purging the old copies every 30 days, but in July, i365 sent the court a software update to install. Griffin said Landry received a message that the installation was a success, but when the crash happened, it was discovered that the installation had failed and from July on, i365 didn't make any proper backups.

"I would have expected i365 to recognize it," Griffin said. "In hindsight, I'm sure Tynia wishes she had checked and double-checked and triple-checked. But if you got a notice of a successful download, what are you supposed to think?"

Marlena Fernandez, a spokeswoman for i365, declined to comment. Griffin said Landry was not available for an interview because court policy is that employees are not to speak with the media.

New tech chief hired

Landry has been in charge of the court's technology for about a decade. Griffin said she wouldn't have the job anymore if she had been at fault. But Griffin emphasized she was speaking for herself and that not every judge was comfortable with leaving Landry in charge. Last week the court hired a more experienced technology professional, Peter Haas, to become Landry's superior. The judges are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the matter.

There is clearly tension between the court's IT staff and Atkins as she tries to fix the problem. Griffin said she had to intervene in a dispute this past week over whether Landry should have immediately addressed a possible server problem in Atkins' office. Haas, who headed a modernization of Supreme Court records, ended up sending Landry a note directing her to make the needs of Atkin's office a priority.

Griffin said the judges recognize the gravity of the situation and are offering Atkins' staffing help when they can, but Atkins said that volunteer spirit is not universal among all of the judges.

Published on NOLA.com -- December 05, 2010 at 11:06 AM

Paula Devlin, The Times-Picayune

17 November 2010

Conti Street Hotel Gets $7.8M Modern Makeover

Local owners are breathing new life into a 30-plus-year-old hotel property in the French Quarter. The Hotel Le Marais at 717 Conti St. is reopening after a $7.8 million renovation.

The property between Royal and Bourbon streets, formerly known as St. Ann and Marie Antoinette, has undergone a contemporary face lift.

Wayne Ducote and Joseph Jaeger Jr. are principals with 717 Conti LLC, the entity that owns the 66-room property hotel. Their upgrades include makeovers for all guestrooms and public spaces and a new lobby lounge. The facility also features a private courtyard and heated pool.

Le Marais takes its name from a district in Paris known for its history and architecture. It will be operated under the management of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, a group that includes the Bourbon Orleans, Dauphine Orleans, Wyndham Riverfront, 7 on Fulton, St. Louis Hotel, Crown Plaza New Orleans Airport and Audubon Cottages.

By: City Business Staff Reports Friday, November 12, 2010

05 November 2010

Landrieu Says City Will Increase Battle on Blight

Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the city will step up efforts to rid New Orleans of blighted properties.

On Tuesdays, Landrieu said the city will target properties within a five-block radius of playgrounds and in areas with a lot of traffic.

Landrieu has made it his goal to rid the city of up to 10,000 blighted and vacant properties over the next three years.

The mayor says abandoned properties make the city less safe and hurt home values and the city's quality of life.

Landrieu says data from the U.S. Postal Service and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center show an estimated 58,000 blighted and vacant address in the city, the highest percentage of blighted properties in the nation.

posted: 08:11 AM Wednesday, November 3, 2010 By: The Associated Press

25 October 2010


613 Second Street
New Orleans, LA 70130

Charming Creole Cottage in the Irish Channel -- an eclectic neighborhood very centrally located minutes from all of kinds of shopping, restaurants and other fun stuff! Built only 6 years ago, this front/rear double features spacious units with cathedral ceilings, custom kitchens, two full bathrooms and more! Rear "Owner's Unit" has a wonderful covered porch and courtyard. Gated off-street parking possible. Front unit rented for $950/month. A great opportunity to own a wonderful home with income!!!

20 October 2010

Developers Purchase Chevron Building Downtown

NEW ORLEANS -- It didn't become the new City Hall of New Orleans, as former Mayor Ray Nagin had suggested, but the Chevron building downtown will see new life as a high-tech business center, developers announced Tuesday.

A press release from Kingfish Development LLC announced its purchase of the building at the corner of O'Keefe and Gravier. The purchase price was $6 million, according to records.

The 21-story, 380,000 square-foot office tower will be renamed the City Centre of New Orleans, according to the press release, and will "become a hub for technology based companies" and entrepreneurs. The developers hope to bring 700-800 jobs into the Central Business District.

Nagin had floated the idea of buing the Chevron building for more than $8 million last year, as a new city government complex, saying in essence that the purchase price was too good to pass up. But the idea was panned by most city council members, who voted 4-3 against the idea.

Chevron abandoned the storm-damaged building in 2008, by relocating its local staff to the northshore.

The new buyers for the building, as principals in Kingfish Development LLC, include Hugh Uhalt, Steven O. Medo III, and Robert, Joseph and Chris Bruno.

by Dominic Massa with additional reporting by Marcy Planer/Eyewitness News wwltv.com

23 August 2010

Electric Bills Will Rise a Little This Month Due to Natural Gas Prices and a Hot Summer.

Most utility customers in Southeastern Louisiana will see a slight increase in their electricity bills this month because of the rising price of natural gas and above-average temperatures for much of the summer, the peak power usage season.

Utilities don't profit from higher energy prices, but they do pass along the cost to their customers in higher fuel adjustment charges. And while natural gas prices have fallen in recent weeks as moderate weather set in across the country, the fuel adjustment charges on customer's bills lag two months behind real energy prices. That means the power bills that go out this month will still reflect the higher natural gas prices recorded a couple of months ago.

In June, natural gas prices climbed as high as $5.17 per million British thermal units, up more than 20 percent compared with June 2009. Prices have since fallen and stood at $4.35 on Wednesday.

That's down from two years ago, when Louisiana officials declared an energy emergency to give utility customers more time to pay their bills after natural gas prices reached more than $13 per million Btu in July 2008.

"I think you're kind of seeing the middle ground between those two ranges of fluctuating natural gas prices," said Philip Allison, a spokesman for Entergy Louisiana, which serves Algiers, suburban New Orleans south of Lake Pontchartrain and a handful of customers in St. Tammany Parish.

At Cleco Power LLC, which provides power in St. Tammany and central Louisiana, a typical monthly residential bill for 1,000 kilowatt hours of power has risen more than $13 from this time last year, a spike the company attributed partly to the $304 million acquisition of a 580-megawatt natural gas power station in Acadiana in February.

"It is going to be a big benefit to customers," Cleco spokeswoman Robbyn Cooper said about Acadia Power Station Unit 1. "However, in the short term, it's probably going to take two to three years for customers to start seeing that saving."

Local utilities officials have spent months appealing to customers to take steps to manage their power use, which has become a summer ritual. To help reduce utility costs, they recommend replacing air filters; sealing air leaks; closing curtains during the day; and keeping thermostats at 78 degrees, because each degree below that increases bills by 3 percent.

Entergy officials also recommend that customers sign up for level billing, which allows for paying about the same amount for electricity every month, summer or winter, average over a 12-month period based on usage.

"It really helps them ride through months like we're having right now," said Melonie Hall, director of customer service for Entergy New Orleans.

Meanwhile, for the second straight year, Entergy New Orleans customers sweating through the sizzling conditions should be in for some relief: On the heels of a collective $30.3 million rate reduction that went into effect last summer, a typical monthly residential bill dropped by more than $3, compared with this time last year.

That's more than an $18 drop from a typical residential power bill in August 2008, when natural gas prices skyrocketed. Earlier this year, Entergy officials proposed reducing electric rates again, by $12.8 million, while raising gas rates by $2.3 million, for an overall savings of $10.5 million to customers, starting in October, months after the region's period of most intense electricity usage has ended as temperatures cool down.

"That's good news for our customers," Hall said. "Even though the heat is not good news, the base rate reduction is."

As thousands of Gulf Coast residents struggle to pay their utility bills, a group of elected and community officials from throughout the region have joined with representatives from Entergy's Louisiana companies to urge the Obama administration to release $20 million from a federal emergency contingency fund to help cover fuel and air-conditioning costs.

The federal program, known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, was budgeted at $58.2 million last year in subsidies for heating and air-conditioning costs to 21,000 homes across the state.

Richard Thompson can be reached at rthompson@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3496.

Times Picayune 8.22.2010

02 August 2010

Homebuilders are finding new opportunities on vacant, urban lots.

LaPlace builder Joe Scontrino has long built subdivisions in the land-rich communities of St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes. But today, Scontrino, one of the area's largest home builders, is all about the city of New Orleans, especially Lakeview.

"We've done stuff in the city in the past, but certainly not to the level of investment we're trying to make now," said Scontrino, founder of Landcraft Homes.

Across the metro area, builders who previously specialized in new subdivisions in the suburbs are flocking to build homes on demolished lots or build new homes in flooded-and-gutted shells in the city. Their devotion is a mix of a unique opportunity in an urban area and survival during tough times for the home building industry.

"The opportunity to be part of that construction was never there before," Scontrino said of in-fill development in the city. "If Lakeview wasn't there, I think it would be fairly dim for builders."

The New Orleans area has never been the bonanza for builders that fast-growing urban areas like Atlanta have been, and in the past few years, what little new residential construction existed fell off a cliff.

In 2004, builders in teh metro area constructed 6,400 new housing units. Activity fell off a bit in 2005 and 2006 after Katrina as they area regathered and many builders themselves were harmed by the storm. But the number of single-family homes built in the area has continued falling since 2006, even though 2007 and 2008 the number of new housing units was padded by the construction of new multifamily developments and the redevelopment of the Big Four housing projects in New Orleans.

Starting in 2008, the numbers really tumbled as the recession, credit crunch and housing correction set in. Last year, the construction industry build only 2,832 new housing units in the metro area, and for the first five months of this year, builders have taken out permits for only 802 units.

"People are scared. They're afraid. I've got a job today, but will I have one tomorrow?" said Bob Major, president of Major Builders LLC, a Venetian Isles company that has stopped building spec homes because of the economy and difficulties with financing, and is instead concentrating on building homes for people on lots they've purchased in Lakeview.

The Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, in partnership with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, has had two sales of large vacant lots within the past year that will result in more than 200 new homes being built, according to improvement association board member Al Petrie. To guard against speculators, lots could be sold only to Lakeview residents or their family members. Construction is required to begin within a year of closing -- a godsend for the home-building industry -- and owners are prohibited from selling their new house for three years.

With urban lots opening up and creating a unique opportunity of desirable, affordable sites with a ticking construction clock, builders are flocking to the area. While empty lots are in demand, they're cheaper than the possibility of tear-downs before the storm, and give people the chance to have a new home in the city.

"Lakeview is basically like a new subdivision right now with all the work that's going on," said builder Jason Hardie, whose grandfather started their family company, Ferran-Hardie Homes, Inc., back in 1938 and built homes in Lakeview. Until the storm, his company, based in Metairie, had been doing more work in the suburbs. Hardie, 30, bought a home in Lakeview in 2007 and has been building there ever since.

In-fill mania is likely to spread to other areas as neighborhood associations in Broadmoor and Gentilly are looking at similar lot programs, Petrie said.

Meanwhile the dearth of construction work elsewhere also seems to be fueling new interest in the sale of flood-and-gutted properties. After prices on unrepaired homes had fallen for several years, they jumped in a few desirable locations in the first half of this year, according to figures calculated for the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

Theories are that prices of damaged properties have fallen enough to again make them economical for builders and investors, especially with interest rates being at record lows and a surplus of consruction workers available for hire. Wade Ragas, president of Real Property Associates, the firm that calculated the figures on Realtor-assisted sales for NOMAR, thinks that builders facing hard times may be trying to take on projects to keep their crews working. Meanwhile, programs like the Road Home rental assistance program and elevation grants could be helping the economics of home rebuilding projects, several people said.

"New home-builders are finding that their project list is starting to dwindle. They're having to start looking into smaller jobs and remodeling rather than having their jobs based on new construction," said David Johnston of Johnston Home Improvement, LLC, a remodeling contractor who works on older homes in the city.

But such work can be a gamble. Devon Sweeney of Sweeney Restoration, LLC said he has purchased a few vacant homes, remodeled them and put them up for sale or for rent, but he said he's lost money on several of the deals.

Still, Sweeney wonders whether builders may be trying to take on whatever work they can to stay afloat. "I know I've been underbid several times recently on jobs that I thought I was giving good bids on. It may be people who are trying to just keep their crews working," he said.

Thomas Tubre, president of the Natchitoches company TKTMJ Inc. who moved to Lakeview, said that building is tough right now because the cost of construction exceeds what the market says many homes are worth.

Tubre's company is nimble, and does commercial, residential, public works and high construction. In addition to doing individual homes in Lakeview, he's building Project Home Again houses in Gentilly, which he said truly is like doing a subdivision of all-new construction.

"We have economies of scale here because we have been able to start a project with 12 to 13 units at a time," Tubre said.

Rebecca Mowbray can be reahed at rmowbray@timespicayune.com NOLA.com August 2, 2010

03 February 2010

2010 Mardi Gras Parade Schedule


• Krewe du Vieux – French Quarter, 7:00 PM


• Little Rascals – Metairie, 11:00 AM

• Perseus – Slidell, 1:00 PM


• Oshun -- Uptown, 6:00 PM

• Atlas – Metairie, 6:30 PM

• Cleopatra – West Bank, 6:30 PM

• Excalibur – Metairie, 7:00 PM

• Pygmalion – Uptown, 7:00 PM

• Eve – Mandeville, 7:00 PM


• Pontchartrain – Uptown, 1:00 PM

• Shangri-La – Uptown, 2:00 PM

• Caesar – Metairie, 6:00 PM

• Sparta – Uptown, 6:00 PM

• Pegasus – Uptown, 6:45 PM

• Olympia – Covington, 6:00 PM


• Alla – West Bank, Noon

• Carrollton – Uptown, Noon

• King Arthur – Uptown, 1:15 PM

• Barkus – French Quarter – 2:00 PM

• Rhea – Metairie, 2:00 PM

• Centurions – Metairie, 5:30 PM

• Nemesis – Chalmette, 2:00 PM

• Dionysus – Slidell, 1:00 PM


• Druids – Uptown, 6:00 PM

• Thor – Metairie, 7:00 PM


• Babylon – Uptown, 5:45 PM

• Chaos – Uptown, 6:30 PM

• Muses – Uptown, 7:30 PM


• Hermes – Uptown, 6:00 PM

• Aquila – Metairie, 7:00 PM

• d’Etat – Uptown, 6:30 PM

• Jason – Metairie, 7:30 PM

• Morpheus – Uptown, 7:45 PM

• Selene – Slidell, 6:30 PM

• Orpheus – Mandeville, 7:00 PM


• NOMTOC – West Bank, 10:45 AM

• Iris – Uptown, 11:00 AM

• Tucks – Uptown, 12:30 PM

• Endymion – Uptown, 4:30 PM

• Isis – Metairie, 6:00 PM


• Okeanos – Uptown, 11:00 AM

• Thoth – Uptown, 11:30 AM

• Mid-city – Uptown, 2:00 PM

• Bacchus – Uptown, 5:15 PM

• Napoleon – Metairie, 5:30 PM

• Tchefuncte – Madisonville, 10:00 AM


• Proteus – Uptown, 5:15 PM

• Orpheus – Uptown, 5:45 PM

• Zeus – Metairie, 6:30 PM


• Zulu – Uptown, 8:00 AM

• Rex – Uptown, 10:00 AM

• Elks Orleans – Uptown, 11:30 AM

• Crescent City – Uptown, follows Elks

• Argus – Metairie, 10:00 AM

• Jefferson Trucks – Metairie, follows Argus

• Elks Jefferson – Metairie, follows Jefferson

• Grela – West Bank, 11:00 AM

• Choctaw – West Bank, Noon

• Lions – Covington, 10:00 AM

• Covington – Covington, follows Lions

08 January 2010


Homebuyer Tax Credit


*First time homebuyers who purchase a primary residence between January 1, 2009 and December 1, 2009 receive a tax credit equal to 10% of the purchase price.

*The credit is capped at $8,000.

*There is no repayment requirement provided the home is not sold for 3 years.

*The credit decreases as modified adjusted gross income rises about $150,000 for married couples ($75,000 for individuals) and disappears after $170,000 ($95,000 for individuals).

*Any single family residence that is used as a primary residence is eligible.

*First time homebuyer is anyone who has not owned a primary residence in the previous three years before the purchase.


*Extends the deadline to April 30, 2010, but if there is a purchase agreement in place before April 30, 2010 the buyer has until June 30, 2010 to close.

*Tax credit is extended on a limited basis (up to $6,500) to individuals who have owned and used the same residence as their primary home for any 5 consecutive year period during the 8 year period ending on the date of purchase.

*Income limits are increased to $125,000 for individuals and $225,000 for married couples.

*Does not apply to homes with a sales price that exceeds $800,000.

*For property purchased in 2009, the credit may be claimed in tax year 2008 or 2009 (if closing took place after April 15, 2009 the taxpayer must request an extension for filing to claim the credit in 2008).

*The home must still remain the homebuyer's principal residence for 3 years or the credit must be repaid.

*IRS Form 5405 is used to claim the tax credit.

The credit is not available if the home is purchased from a close relative such as a spouse, parents, grandparent, chold or grandchild. Any homebuyer purchasing a primary residence using a home loan program connected with state-revenue bond funding is not eligible for the tax credit.

Any potentional homebuyers should consult a qualified accountant to determine if they meet all of the requirements of the new law and to insure that their application for the credit is reported correctly.

Crescent Title, LLC

Daniel M. Douglass

Attorny At Law

Crescent Title, LLC

Bergeron, Douglass, Frosch & Mack

3224 N. Turnbull Drive

Metairie, LA 70002


504-888-1977 (fax)