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Hurricane Ida resulted in illegal evictions across Louisiana. This bill aims to stop them.

houma highlands
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
Repairs are made at the Houma Highlands apartment complex in April 2022.

When Hurricane Ida slammed into southeast Louisiana last August, 39-year-old Ben Toups and his wife hunkered down in their Houma apartment.

He didn’t evacuate ahead of Ida because he’s lived through hurricanes all his life in the bayou parishes. But this Category 4 storm, with its 150 mph winds, was unlike any he had ever experienced.

“For four hours straight, picture a thousand pressure washers just going off on your windows,” Toups said.

Unlike many other homes in Houma, his apartment, which was on higher-ground and shielded from winds by neighboring buildings, weathered the storm intact and with minimal damage.

So Toups was taken aback when, eight days after the hurricane, he started getting emails from the ECI Group, an apartment rental agency that manages Houma Highlands, telling him and other residents to vacate immediately.

Toups said he and other tenants were told they could terminate their leases with no penalties, or they could continue paying rent, but would need to remove their belongings and put them in the middle of the building and shrink wrap them.

The emails became a barrage. Fire alarms sounded constantly, and power was rationed due to safety concerns over exposed wires, even when electricity was widely restored to Houma; Toups interpreted both as management urging him to move out.

In a prepared statement, ECI Group Vice President of Resident Experience Tim Johnson didn’t answer questions on whether residents were pushed out as Toups described, and said residents were allowed to get their belongings “with the understanding that there were health risks associated with entering the units” due to significant wind and water damage.

He added that no evictions were processed through the court system for any Houma Highlands resident due to Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Toups wasn’t officially evicted, but after a month, he and his wife gathered what they could and left.

“We just decided to leave at that point and then start a new life two hours north,” Toups said. “It was just a constant bombardment of pressure to get out.”

Ben Toups in BR
Carly Berlin
/
WWNO
Ben Toups outside the statehouse in March.

At the time, Toups didn’t realize he had the right to stay. Houma Highlands would need to take him to court in order to legally evict him.

Renters are especially vulnerable in the weeks following a hurricane. Courts are often closed if they’re damaged or power is out. Attorneys and advocates say landlords who want their tenants out often bypass the formal eviction process, changing the locks and removing tenants’ belongings, claiming tenants have abandoned their units when, in reality, they’ve evacuated. Unlike many other states, Louisiana law lays out few repercussions for landlords who illegally evict their tenants.

A new Louisiana state bill, HB-160, could give renters more protections in the immediate aftermath of a federally-declared disaster and introduce new penalties for landlords who evict tenants illegally. Toups gave an emotional testimony to a house committee in March, when the bill was introduced.

“It’s very difficult when your parents lost everything, your friends and family lost everything,” Toups told the committee. “And you gotta find a place to go when there is no place to go.”

Since leaving Houma, Toups and his wife traveled to Gonzales, New Orleans and even Lake Charles searching for an apartment they could afford. On November 11, a month after they left Houma Highlands, they settled into a second-floor unit in Denham Springs, paying almost double what they’d spent on rent in Houma.

What the bill would do

In Louisiana, a landlord must go through court to evict a tenant, unless they have a reasonable belief that a tenant has abandoned the property. Some typical examples of abandonment would be a tenant returning the keys or removing furnishings, said Hannah Adams, a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a free, civil legal aid agency serving 22 parishes.

After hurricanes, landlords can fairly easily take advantage of that abandonment provision, especially while tenants are evacuated, Adams said. Many residents of southeast Louisiana left the region ahead of Hurricane Ida last year and stayed away through prolonged power outages. Two or three weeks after Ida, when many finally returned home, SLLS got calls from tenants who came home to find nothing in their apartments.

“All their furniture was gone, all their belongings were gone. The locks were changed,” Adams said.

Some called their landlords to ask where their belongings were, and landlords told them they assumed they had moved out.

HB-160 would add a provision to the existing law that would make cessation of residential occupancy not evidence of abandonment for 30 days in parishes subject to a federal disaster declaration. That means a landlord would not be able to take over a property by claiming a tenant abandoned it during that window of time.

The bill would also add a new penalty for landlords who illegally evict tenants by skipping over the court eviction process: the landlord would need to pay the tenant either $500 or twice the amount of monthly rent, whichever is greater.

That penalty is designed to disincentivize landlords from breaking the law, said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, which provided input on the bill.

“The goal is to make sure that people don’t have to get into this situation in the first place,” he said. “Because once you’ve lost all your things and you’ve been locked out of your apartment, it takes so much longer to recover.”

Kenneth Bordes, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans, said he was inundated with calls after Ida. He worked with a number of tenants at the Saulet Apartments in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District who received eviction notices on their doors in the days following Ida, which stated that their apartments were no longer habitable. Orleans Parish’s eviction courts were closed at that time.

Yet the apartment complex saw little damage from Ida, Bordes said. Tenants told Bordes that the only damage to their apartments had been there before the storm — like plumbing leaks in tenants’ bathrooms and kitchens — and the Saulet hadn’t made repairs, even though tenants submitted maintenance requests.

“I just saw a company — out of state, at that — trying to take advantage of a storm,” Bordes said. “Because what happens after a storm, right? Housing becomes more expensive because maybe there’s less of it.”

Companies can charge new tenants more, and file insurance claims to seek funds for existing maintenance issues, Bordes said.

The Saulet Apartments did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

HB-160 could also reduce the financial cost to a tenant who needs to seek emergency relief if their landlord has violated the law. Typically, if a landlord illegally evicts a tenant, that tenant’s legal remedy would be to file an emergency restraining order or emergency injunctive relief from the court. To do that, a tenant must post a “security” — meaning, they must pay money — to the court.

Finding that money can be difficult for renters who have just experienced a hurricane.

“That’s a period of time when tenants are particularly vulnerable, because they have even less funds lying around than they normally would, having spent most of their money to evacuate,” Adams said.

HB-160 would waive that payment requirement for the 30 days following a federal disaster declaration. It would also allow a tenant who sues for wrongful eviction to collect attorney’s fees and court costs.

houma highlands
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
The Houma Highlands apartment complex in April 2022.

Why now

The bipartisan bill was authored by Rep. Mandie Landry of New Orleans, along with a host of other legislators from areas hit hardest by Ida: House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee of Houma, Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue of Houma, Rep. Beryl Amedée of Houma, Rep. Bryan Fontenot of Thibodaux, and Rep. Joseph Orgeron of Larose. The lawmakers received input from housing advocates and the landlord lobby.

Testifying before the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure on March 29, Landry and Magee said HB-160 is a direct response to issues they observed after Hurricane Ida.

“It was egregious to see that people were being thrown out of their homes at the worst possible time,” Landry said.

Yet some lawmakers contended that the wording of the bill was too narrow to address a wide-ranging landscape of landlord-tenant concerns that arise after hurricanes.

Committee member Rep. Wilford Carter of Lake Charles said many of his constituents were not able to return to their homes for at least two months after the city was battered by back-to-back hurricanes in 2020.

“This is nice, but this is not much,” he said of HB-160.

HB-160 advanced through its state House committee and was passed by a unanimous vote by the full House on April 6. It’s now awaiting a Senate committee hearing.

Toups, from Houma, is now building a house for his family in Denham Springs and regaining a sense of normalcy. He hopes that no one has to go through the experience that he did.

“Something has to change,” Toups told House committee members in March. “I just believe landlords should be held accountable for their actions.”

Disclaimer: New Orleans Public Radio reporter Carly Berlin previously worked for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center as an Investigations Fellow through the Avodah Jewish Service Corps program, during the 2018-2019 term.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.

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