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With Mass Evictions Looming In New Orleans, Residents Say They're Frustrated With City's Rental Assistance Program

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Phoebe Jones/WWNO
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Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a COVID-19 memorial event. Jan. 19, 2021.

** Clarification Friday, July 16th, 10:32 am. **
An earlier version of the story referenced Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) being unable to help undocumented immigrants. An attorney with the group says are able to help in certain instances. If not, those evicted tenants should contact Fair Action Housing Center for aid.

With less than two weeks left until a national moratorium on evictions ends, New Orleans officials are scrambling to help the estimated tens of thousands of residents who’ve fallen behind on rent.

A 2021 U.S. Census survey found roughly one in four residents in Louisiana haven’t been able to keep up with their rental payments, a percentage only surpassed by Mississippi.

The problem is particularly dire in New Orleans, with it’s high cost of living and acute poverty.

A city program to provide rental assistance to residents is finally up and running, but not as fast as many applicants would like.

As of Monday, the program had received 14,883 applications. To expedite the process of approving the applications, the city set up an in-person event to approve tenants for the funds.

Some applicants, like Linda Temple, were misinformed about the event, thinking they would be able to collect the relief funds they applied for. Temple waited over three hours and was told it could be 21 days until she received a call if she was approved or not.

Temple was one of the earlier people to sign up for the program and after submitting and resubmitting identification cards and proof of income receipts through the mail, Temple grew frustrated and also accumulated costly late fees.

“[The city] said they’d cover three months of my rent, but not the $250 I got in late fees,” Temple said.

The two-day event held for the first 5,000 applicants was prompted by a $6.6 million bond from the Federal Treasury, Marjorianna Willman, the city’s director of housing policy and community development, said at a press conference last Wednesday.

Initially the city received $11.6 million from the U.S. Treasury Department to aid residents with rent payments during the pandemic. The city says they currently don’t have enough money to fulfill every request but they are finding that some applicants are from neighboring parishes or have signed up twice accidentally.

The city plans on receiving $42 million which could help over 10,000 households in total, but Willman said the office currently has too much demand and not enough current funds to help everyone. For those unable to secure assistance, Willman suggested tenants work with their landlords to create payment plans.

Last week on Friday Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced on Twitter that the city is planning a second event for “application numbers 5,001 through 10,000.”

Activists from Union Migrante, an immigrant rights organization, said they were incredibly frustrated by the event.

Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, members of the activist group said New Orleans’ Latin American community has struggled significantly. The organization has held several protests and have held meetings with Cantrell and members of the City Council to request relief.

"They've been in meatpacking plants and the agricultural fields, cleaning RTA buses, keeping our city functioning," Rachel Taber, a Spanish interpreter, said. "They've been the last to leave work because they don't get a social safety net."

Undocumented immigrants missed out on other programs meant to help Americans weather the pandemic, making them even more vulnerable. Taber said she also believes undocumented immigrants have been more likely to experience trouble with landlord’s during the pandemic because they don’t have the time or resources to gain legal help.

Willman has told the group and said in an interview Monday that anyone having problems with a landlord should seek support from Southeast Louisiana Legal Service.
In a press release from Union Migrante posted in late June, they said 95% of the original funds “had gone directly to landlords.” The group wants the funds to be distributed directly to renters as there is “no way to know if their landlord has accepted funds or not,” and “there is no oversight or legal repercussions to hold landlords accountable if they accept funds and evict tenants nonetheless.”

Willman, in an interview with WWNO, said the first round of payments given to the city was federally tied. The money was reserved to go directly to landlords. However, the new batch of funds can go directly to tenants.

At a meeting with members of City Hall on Monday, Union Migrante demanded for more transparency in these details and a public record of all landlords who received funds from the program. This is due to their belief that landlords are collecting the funds and still moving forward with evictions and late fees.

Glenda Cruz, a grandmother and member of Union Migrante, said she was frustrated that she had to miss work to attend the city’s rent relief event, which was held on Wednesday and Thursday, and said she has been waiting since February to get rent relief from the city.

Cruz said she knows undocumented immigrants who have taken high-interest loans from people in their neighborhoods in order to pay off backlogged rent. Angeles Buyoli, another member of Union Migrante, said it can be dangerous for them to take these loans.

Prior to the pandemic, Cruz worked on the West Bank cleaning houses and hotel rooms and made enough money to send some to her mother in Honduras. Then the pandemic hit, and she lost her job and her ability to send money back home.

Her mother later died from COVID-19, Cruz said. Cruz suffered a stroke shortly after and hasn’t been able to work since. She now watches her granddaughter while her daughter is at work.

Cruz said since the pandemic, several of her family members have come to live with her after being evicted from their own homes.

"My home is full, the couch, every room," said Cruz.

Katie Anousheh, a member of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly said on Monday, that just because eviction courts are closed does not mean that landlords have stopped evictions. By ending leases that are on a month to month basis or finding clauses in the lease agreement landlords have continued to push people out of their homes.

Anousheh also said that even in the best of times it is hard for non-English speaking renters to find the representation they need in eviction courts. Anousheh attended the meeting between Union Migrante and City Hall on Monday.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, found that Orleans Parish had at least 36 eviction filings in the past week and almost 3,000 since March 15.

“When you’re evicted, when you have kids, and you don’t have a roof over your head, you have nothing,” said Maria Galaes after the meeting.

Galaes was evicted in August 2020 and gave testimony to the council. “It feels terrible. You feel completely humiliated. You feel useless. You feel like you’re powerless to do anything. And it hasn’t touched their heart to do anything,” she said through an interpreter.

“God’s the only one looking out for us, to make it day to day.”

The eviction moratorium, which ends July 31, was announced by the Centers for Disease last month. The Biden Administration said this would be the final moratorium on evictions.

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