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'You Hear Me? I Am Scared': Louisiana Is On The Brink Of An Evictions Disaster

Ben Depp
National Geographic Society
Homes in New Orleans East. May 2020.

On a scorecard evaluating the work states are doing to prevent homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, Louisiana received 0 out of 5 stars.

The rating system created by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab measured states’ successes and failures on 22 points across five policy areas: initiation of eviction, court process, enforcement of eviction order, short-term supports, and tenancy preservation measures. Louisiana was founding lacking on all but one point — “no utility disconnection.”

Tenants and housing advocates across the state know this, scorecard or no scorecard. They’re living it and fighting it every day.

“If it wasn't for my friends, I wouldn't know what I would do,” said John Fuller, who was recently evicted in New Orleans.

Credit Mara Lazer
John Fuller poses for a portrait outside a Salvation Army shelter. July 2020.

He lost his job driving 18-wheelers this December after developing a serious heart condition. He filed for disability in March and still has not received any benefits. But he did find a place to stay — a Salvation Army shelter in the city, where he says he sleeps in a room with 25 other people. He can stay there for 90 days, for $10 a day.

During the pandemic, most in-house programs at shelters are canceled. Everyone has to leave the shelter by 7 a.m. and must return between 4 and 6 p.m. Temperatures are checked as people enter.

But staying in a shelter is a risky option. Sleeping in a room with 25 strangers is the opposite of social distancing, so evictions in a time when people can’t find anywhere to live raise big public health concerns.

For Louisiana to survive the pandemic, people must be able to socially distance to slow the spread of the virus, but total isolation won’t save us either. Community support remains an essential piece of public health. This week New Orleans opened a limited $1 million rent assistance fund for households with children, elderly or people with disabilities facing homelessness within 30 days.

Despite a unanimous City Council resolution and disapproval from housing advocates, the eviction moratorium ended and courts reopened. Some tenants are still protected by the federal stimulus package, or the CARES Act. If a landlord received federal assistance like a Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or FHA mortgage, or if any tenant receives assistance like Section 8 vouchers, Hill said, “there are federal dollars tied up in that property.” Tenants cannot legally be removed from the property in this scenario until the CARES Act expires Aug. 24.

Cashauna Hill, director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center was against opening eviction court in June. Now she dreams of empathetic landlords.

“What we hope is that landlords are really taking this opportunity to partner with their tenants,” she said. “We should be fully clear at this point that what happens to all of us is directly related to what happens to each of us.”

Hearings at eviction court last a few minutes.

At a recent eviction court hearing, the judge asked a landlord, “When do you want your tenant out?”

“What? I don’t understand how this works. I’ve never done this before,” the landlord replied.

The judge responded by ordering the tenant out in 24 hours.

Housing attorneys say judges can use their discretion to decide if a tenant must be off the property in 24 hours or if they will consider factors such as the coronavirus, children, disabilities or being over 65 years old as a legitimate impedance to the possibility of actually moving in 24 hours.

“Renters in Louisiana have comparatively fewer legal protections than in other jurisdictions,” said Hannah Adams, a housing attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “One big thing that we're seeing right now is that, let's say a tenant owes $1,500 from the past three months and they come up with $500 and their landlord orally tells them, ‘Great, just pay me the rest,’ you know, next week or next month. And then they go and file an eviction. ... Under Louisiana law, it's perfectly acceptable for a landlord to accept money and then file an eviction. ... I've definitely seen people get evicted for owning, you know, 100 bucks a portion of one month's rent. Definitely. I've seen many, many people get evicted for owing just one month's rent.”

Louisiana’s court structure makes state-wide analysis challenging.

The most recent data from Princeton University's Eviction Lab in 2016 shows Baton Rouge with one of the highest eviction rates in the country — a city-wide average of about 7 percent. That means about nine households are evicted every day.

For Orleans Parish, Jane Place’s eviction monitoring project offers statistical analysis of what happens in eviction court: more than 80 percent of eviction filings were for one month’s rent and 57 percent of tenants facing eviction were Black women.

Comparable data isn’t available for other cities or courts in Louisiana right now. In cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, legal evictions take place in city courts. Outside these areas, Louisiana has justice of the peace courts. These can operate with varying record-keeping systems and organizational structures. Some are very under-resourced. There is no legal education requirement for justices of the peace.

“They are very often holding court in their garages, kitchens, living rooms,” Hill said.

Data or no data, Keith Cunninghan and the Louisiana Housing Corporation (LHC) are well aware of the problems facing Louisiana.

“We had an affordable housing crisis well in advance of COVID-19,” Cunningham said.

LHC created a rental assistance program, aspiring to help up to 10,000 people pay their rent and avoid losing their homes. The program was suspended after four days and an overwhelming number of applicants.

“We received over 40,000 applicants,” Cunningham said. “Right now, we feel that all of the resources need to go to address what is probably the most important issue at this moment, and that is individuals’ ability to maintain their homes.”

Protection from the federal CARES Act expires the same week as the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Housing advocates say unless we see a dramatic shift in policy and funding the state is on track to witness another disaster.

The nonprofit Housing Louisiana estimates at least $250 million dollars is needed to help tenants stay housed. CNBC reports more than half of Louisiana renters are unable to pay rent and at risk of eviction.

Credit Mara Lazer
Natasha Blunt takes a break from packing up her home, from which she is being evicted, to pose for a portrait.

Among them is Natasha Blunt, who worked at a casino in New Orleans and lost her job March 15. She and almost everyone in her apartment building recently found eviction notices on their doors.

“It is really hard,” she said. “This pandemic turned everybody's life upside down.”

She cares for her grandchildren and is having a hard time finding shelter. As her eviction date nears, she does not know where she is going to live.

“I am scared,” she said. “You hear me? I am scared.”

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