As eviction rates rise, New Orleans renters can now get a lawyer in court for free
Steps away from First City Court, where east bank eviction cases are seen, community organizer Y. Frank Southall posted up at the Duncan Plaza bus stop with a folding table and stacks of flyers on a weekend morning in late May.
He was there to find renters who might be facing evictions, and he said the downtown bus stop is a hub for working-class tenants from across the metro area.
Stepping off buses from the east and Algiers, riders lingered to detail their struggles to find affordable rentals; one said his landlord had just tacked a notice to vacate on his apartment door.
Southall, the organizing and community engagement manager for the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), told them about a new, city-funded program to help renters stay housed. The “right to counsel” program ensures any tenant facing eviction can get access to an attorney in court, free of charge.
“When we see attorneys in eviction court, the difference is night and day,” Southall said.
The program kicked off in January, after the city allocated $2 million in its December 2021 budget to fund it for one year. Early last month, the city moved to make it permanent: on May 5, the City Council voted unanimously to pass a right to counsel ordinance, amending city code to assure tenants facing eviction will have legal representation in New Orleans courts for years to come.
The ordinance, which sets basic rules for the program, clarifies internal reporting requirements and tees up the program for future funding, “helps to address evictions that we are seeing as we return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Council President Helena Moreno, who sponsored it.
New Orleans joins a cohort of other cities that have enacted right to counsel programs during the pandemic, including Baltimore, Louisville and Seattle, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Now, any tenant facing eviction in New Orleans — as well as illegal lockouts and housing subsidy terminations — can get a lawyer.
New Orleans is a city of renters: over half of residents rent their homes here, according to census data.
A patchwork of local, state and federal eviction moratoria — as well as pandemic and hurricane-related court closures — kept eviction filing rates low in New Orleans from the spring of 2020 through last summer.
But filing rates started climbing back up in October, after the Supreme Court overturned the CDC’s eviction ban in late August, and a state-wide freeze on eviction proceedings after Hurricane Ida expired in late September. The city is now seeing filing rates on par with 2019: around 470 per month so far this year, as of April, according to Eviction Lab.
During the six months leading up to the pandemic, only about 6% of tenants who appeared in eviction court in New Orleans had legal representation, based on data gathered by the Eviction Court Monitoring Project through the JPNSI. That rate is similar nationally: an average of 3% of tenants have legal representation at eviction proceedings, while 81% of landlords do, according to data compiled by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
In New Orleans, tenants with a lawyer by their side saw better outcomes in court, based on JPNSI’s data: only 14.6% were evicted, and the majority had their cases dismissed or were able to reach a consent agreement, which could mean they got more time before they needed to move out and that an eviction wouldn’t show up on their record.
The outcomes were stark for those without legal representation: for every three tenants entering court without a lawyer, two were evicted.
JPNSI’s monitoring also found that Black residents, especially Black women, were evicted at a disproportionate rate.
Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, or SLLS, the main city contractor for the right to counsel program, has long provided legal representation to low-income tenants with a small team of attorneys and support staff.
With city funding, they’ve been able to more than double their number of housing lawyers from early in the pandemic, and hire social workers, too. The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center takes on eviction defense cases that fall outside of SLLS’ income and citizenship requirements for clients.
“We know that this [right to counsel] program, and providing attorneys to people being forced from their homes, will lessen the impact of evictions and will provide more stability and keep families housed,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
The two organizations staff a help desk at both eviction courts in New Orleans: First City Court, which sees cases for the east bank at 421 Loyola Ave., and Second City Court, which sees west bank evictions at 225 Morgan Street.
A tenant facing eviction can walk into court and be represented by an attorney from the help desk, said Amanda Golob, managing attorney for the housing law unit at SLLS. They can also call SLLS’ housing line at 504-529-1000 ext. 223, email email@example.com or visit their office at 1340 Poydras Street.
With funding from SLLS, JPNSI is doing outreach to make sure tenants facing eviction know they can get a lawyer in court, Southall said.
In addition to canvassing at Duncan Plaza, the group also targets information to individuals facing eviction. The day after a landlord files for eviction, JPNSI gets information from court and then sends a postcard to the tenant informing them of their rights and encouraging them to show up to their court date.
That effort is encouraging more tenants to come to court in the first place, according to Golob.
“One of the bigger problems that we’ve seen over the years is that people get the court notice for eviction, they assume they’re going to lose, and they don’t even show up,” she said.
But in New Orleans, if a tenant doesn’t show up to their court date, they’re automatically evicted and given just 24 hours to vacate their unit.
If they do come to court, especially if they have a lawyer, “it's possible that maybe you have defenses or maybe the judge will give you more time, depending on what's going on,” Golob said.
As of mid-April, SLLS saw 600 Orleans Parish eviction cases; about two-thirds were funded through the right to counsel program.
Of the 182 cases they had closed as of then — excluding the ones resolved after giving advice to the tenant or briefly reaching out to the landlord — 100% ended in a favorable outcome: either tenants won their case, or they got more time before needing to move out.
Southall, from JPNSI, told passersby at Duncan Plaza to spread the word to others about the right to counsel program.
“Evictions are like COVID,” he said. “Address it early, and your outcome will be better.”
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, and was briefly involved with JPNSI’s Eviction Court Monitoring Project.