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Habitat jazzes up village for Big Easy musicians

Sun., July 16, 2006

NEW ORLEANS – Dan Oestreicher is a 23-year-old saxophone player, not long out of college, who has lived with friends since Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters drove him from his apartment. A new housing program aims to turn him into a homeowner.

Oestreicher is one of dozens of New Orleans residents who have signed up to help build the Musicians’ Village, a collection of houses in a section of the Ninth Ward flooded after the storm, in exchange for a bargain price on a brand new house.

He said he liked the idea of living near fellow musicians. He also likes the idea of paying $500 a month to own a brand new, three-bedroom house worth about $90,000.

“It’s a great deal,” Oestreicher said. “When I tell people, they’re like, ‘What’s the catch?’ “

There might be a catch: resentment among longtime residents of the neighborhood – most of them homeowners themselves – who aren’t sure that musicians and new houses are what the area needs. Some sneer at the brightly painted new homes that don’t quite match the older houses, built mainly from the 1940s through the ‘60s.

Antoinette Thornton, a nurse who lives around the corner from the development, called the new homes “little huts.”

“Look at those funny little houses they’re putting in there,” said Thornton, who recently returned to New Orleans after staying in Irvine, Calif., since Katrina struck last August. “If we’re talking about bettering New Orleans, why put those there? It’s not a step in the right direction.”

The housing program is run by Habitat for Humanity. Saxophone player Branford Marsalis and singer Harry Connick Jr., honorary chairmen of the charity’s Gulf Coast rebuilding program, dreamed up the idea to encourage musicians to move into one area.

The group bought a vacant lot formerly owned by the city school board and is using its army of volunteers – about 3,000 of them so far – to build 75 homes. It plans another 225 houses elsewhere in the neighborhood, said Elizabeth Lisle, a Habitat deputy director.

The first new homeowners should be able to move in within a few weeks, and the first 75 homes should be ready by mid-August, she said.

Habitat requires Oestreicher and other new homeowners to help build the homes: they must spend 350 hours hammering nails, painting and sawing boards. On Saturday, Oestreicher used a circular saw to cut boards in New Orleans’ broiling midday sun.

In return, Habitat will sell 1,100-square-foot homes to displaced New Orleans residents such as Oestreicher for $75,000, in an agreement that includes a no-interest mortgage and financial provisions to discourage the new homeowners from reselling for a quick profit.

The program is open to people in any profession, but its name and a publicity campaign at nightclubs and other venues have attracted plenty of musicians, including Oestreicher, who plays with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield’s jazz orchestra and a rock band called The Other Planet. Other musicians moving in include jazz bassist Peter Beadie and Fredy Omar, a singer whose new house is almost finished.

On Saturday, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was joined by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in a photo opportunity where they painted houses, hammered nails and praised the program’s power to help rebuild a badly damaged city.


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