NEW ORLEANS – Months after a pandemic moratorium on evictions was lifted, courts in Louisiana have not seen the spike in eviction filings they expected. But the funding that has helped sustain renters is running out, and advocates fear the impacts of COVID and Hurricane Ida recovery efforts are masking the true number of people at risk of losing their housing.
Even before the pandemic began, New Orleans was battling “a growing displacement crisis,” according to a 2019 report from Loyola University researchers and the nonprofit Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI). In a city where almost half of the population is renters, rents had risen 49 percent as incomes dropped by 8 percent.
Today, the coronavirus has disrupted people’s jobs and livelihoods and deepened their financial instabilities. Multiple storms, including August’s Hurricane Ida, added to the long list of challenges in providing stable affordable housing.
Jennifer Arcement and Donnie Diket are one of those families. They found themselves sitting on the stoop of what was once their home a week before Christmas, their belongings piled on the curb.
An hour earlier, constable deputies arrived to oversee a court-ordered eviction initiated by their landlord, who wrote to the couple in September to say that the home was uninhabitable following Hurricane Ida and would need to take back the apartment to make repairs. The couple connected with legal assistance, but time ran out.
Now their front door was locked, the windows of the double shotgun rental house boarded shut.
“They come beating on the house and said I got to go. They put all my stuff on the curb. They just grab your stuff and throw it out the door,” Arcement told the PBS NewsHour. “They don’t care what it is or if it breaks or not; in the rain. It was devastating.”
It’s a catastrophic blow for the couple, who have disabilities and did odd jobs while looking for full-time work during the pandemic to pay their $950 monthly rent. They are now homeless, forced to sleep in a tent in their neighbor’s yard.
Tenant advocates fear their story could become more common. While some parts of the economy have rebounded, the pandemic is not over. The latest wave is hitting hard across Louisiana, which USA Today ranked 11th this week for how fast the coronavirus is spreading. The state had a single-day record of 17,592 cases as of Jan. 12 and hospitalizations are nearly ten times higher than four weeks ago, increasing from 196 on Dec. 15 to 1,905 on Jan. 11. New Orleans recently recorded a 32 percent positivity rate and has once again instituted an indoor mask mandate.
Many renters lack the legal resources that may help them in court. While the city’s largely successful rental assistance program has been funded for another six months and the city has launched pilot programs to get ahead of people being forced out on the street, advocates are worried it’s not enough.
“We’re lacking a safety net. There is no longer a stop on rental evictions. Rental assistance is moving incredibly slowly and not getting to where it’s needed. On top of that, Louisiana has no protections for renting families built into our state landlord-tenant law,” Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center (LaFHAC), told the PBS NewsHour.
Numbers of eviction filings are still straining the court, even if they are not as high as initially feared. According to Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University that tracks filings in 31 cities and six states, November 2021 eviction filings in New Orleans surpassed November 2019 pre-pandemic levels. The numbers show an 8 percent increase from 440 to 477 filings.
“Judges can only see so many cases a day, so there is sort of a rolling backlog of cases. Sometimes, we’re hearing a case in eviction court that was filed over six months ago,” according to Russell Moran, Program Manager for the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), a non-profit that also maintains a court monitoring project in New Orleans’ First City Court.
“We are still in the midst of a pandemic. We still have to social distance. We have to schedule individuals to come in on a staggered basis. Getting out of the moratorium has been a bit of a slower process,” New Orleans First City Court Chief Judge Veronica Henry told the NewsHour. “We have a lot of filings that have come in. We are trying to maintain our dockets as best as we can.”
Evictions in New Orleans were already at a crisis level before the pandemic struck, JPNSI noted in a June 2020 report that examined pre-pandemic data collected as part of its court-monitoring project. It found the rate of evictions in New Orleans was double the national average. A separate 2019 report found that households headed by Black women experienced the highest rates of eviction. In some majority Black neighborhoods that year, the eviction rate exceeded 10 percent of all renters. The city says the elderly and those with disabilities were also profoundly impacted.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It makes you numb. All your stuff is just thrown out. I got things from my grandpa, my mom’s urn, my daddy’s urn, and jewelry. I got to sit out here and dig through it all and look for it,” Arcement said.
Federal rental assistance funds depleting
After a rocky start, rental-assistance programs have finally found a rhythm. The money is flowing and landlords are eager to receive payments. However, the city of New Orleans’ rental assistance fund has been depleted just as eviction filings are rising. The program works directly with landlords and tenants to secure federal rental aid and keep tenants housed.
The city says it received three rounds of federal dollars totaling $27.4 million of rental aid directly from the U.S. Treasury and another $12.8 million in Treasury funds channeled through the State. That money and other funding have helped more than 11,000 families, said Marjorianna Willman, director of the Office of Housing Policy and Community Development. Starting in February 2020, the city was inundated with a total of 19,000 applications. Because all the money was spent, the city requested an additional $50 million from the Treasury of reallocated funds and was awarded an additional $25 million in early January. The new funding will replenish the rental assistance program but is only expected to last six months.
“I do think more evictions are coming, but I think we’re doing a good job of heading them off based on the number of resources available. We’re not seeing the number of evictions and displacement that we could be seeing,” said Willman, who warned that the need is still great. “We have applicants right now that are approved for the program but we’ve run out of funds. We need the extra funds.”
According to a Loyola University New Orleans study, local, state, and federal moratoriums were effective at temporarily halting eviction filings. The study estimated COVID-19-related eviction moratoriums temporarily averted 2,492 eviction filings in New Orleans between March and November 2020. Typically there are some 5,000 filings annually.
The U.S. Department of Treasury recently recognized the city for its work to help renters. In the beginning, it was challenging to scale up a million-dollar program to a multi-million-dollar program given changing federal guidance and limited funds. In August, lines stretched for blocks as renters sought applications. Willman says people came to the community events from all walks of life.
“It was staggering to see the need and the number of people that turned out for those events. We were dealing with people on all levels. What we did find is that many people were in very unstable situations,” Willman recalls.
“I have done the intake process. It’s touching because, for some, it’s their last stop and their only lifeline. I’ve had many people break down and cry in my arms; not just tenants but landlords too. I’ve seen people with everything on the line,” Willman said.
Although the rental assistance program has succeeded in protecting some renters, tenant advocates say illegal evictions are still happening. They worry that some tenants are still in precarious positions even after getting rental assistance. Some have yet to return to work. Some residents are still struggling with basic needs like paying utilities and have turned to the city for help. Figures show an overwhelming unmet need, just to keep the lights on. More than 21,000 have applied for utility assistance; only 6,553 have been approved, Willman said.
“We know there are always more evictions happening illegally or off the books. We don’t have the whole picture here of whether there are civil suits going after renters for unpaid rent, whether there have been claims filed with credit reporting bureaus,” Davida Finger, director of the Center for Social Justice at Loyola University New Orleans, told the NewsHour.
“We don’t know if all the renters who applied for assistance or even those who didn’t get it are still being impacted. We need to know whether they moved out onto the street or a sofa somewhere. We don’t know what happened to the people behind those numbers,” said Finger, whose empirical research on housing justice presented the first comprehensive look at the eviction crisis in New Orleans.
The city is also worried about the bigger picture, including illegal evictions outside the courtroom. Willman said. For now, they cannot track whether or not the one-time payments were enough to avoid what some fear is an inevitable outcome due to the pain of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity at this point. We’d love to do that, but for now, we’re still on the battleground. We’re still trying to keep people housed,” Willman said.
“If we get additional resources, we will be able to revisit the cases and those who are struggling or in trouble again. We may be able to provide additional assistance to them. It’s something we’d like to be able to do.”
HELP IN THE COURTROOM
New Orleans civic leaders and judges, aware of the long-lasting impact of evictions, are also looking for innovative solutions.
At the First City Court in New Orleans, the pandemic led to the creation of a new eviction diversion program. Most agree the program has stemmed the tide of new evictions and offers renters more ways to settle conflicts with property owners.
It is an innovative collaboration with First City Court Judges, City of New Orleans, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to provide legal assistance for tenants, an information desk for landlords and tenants, prioritization for tenants facing eviction for emergency rental assistance programs, and early notification at the time of filing. Starting in 2022, the city will also use $2 million in federal funds for a “right to counsel” program. The program will offer free legal representation to close the gap to protect tenants facing evictions now that moratoriums are gone.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many illegal evictions happening and we were fighting to make sure residents were armed with tools and services to prevent that from happening,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a press release. “I’m glad we have another tool in our toolbox to prevent evictions and keep people in their homes.”
Even so, housing advocates say the new programs are not a panacea for the problems created by housing insecurity and an uneven playing field where not all landlords play nice.
“There is even more hesitancy now because of how many applications there are … it’s taking time to get in landlord’s hands. Landlords are being impatient,” said Andrew Maberry, staff attorney for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “Our laws are set up to where landlords ultimately get to be the decision-maker of what the resolution of the case is going to be regardless of whether the tenant has an attorney or not. If they say no, the law allows them to say no.”
The interventions from the diversion program are helping New Orleans resolve about half of its new eviction cases, Willman said. “Anytime a person is brought to court, it’s a scary process, especially when there is a possibility of losing your home. Having those folks working together should provide the tenant with some hope that they can come out of this on a positive note and maintain some housing. Even if we can’t work out something with the landlord, we can at least provide them with other housing options that may be available to them.”
Henry said the extra help provided to renters in the courtroom or to prepare their case will help create a more balanced playing field and could also alleviate the backlog.
“The help desk has always been something we’ve needed. The tenants don’t always know how to navigate the system. The tenants don’t know the proper defense when they might have a defense,” Henry said. “It’s helped the judges; it’s helped the tenants and it’s helped the landlords. The landlords are able to talk to someone to work things out and they work it out among themselves. There are times when landlord and tenant have had tense relationships and they [help desk lawyers] come in and quell the situations and have a more steady approach under less strained circumstances.”
Tenant advocates say legal representation matters. JPNSI court monitoring data found 65.4 percent of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, while only 14.6 percent of tenants with legal assistance were evicted.
“If we can get a client in our door before their hearing and we can confirm there is a pending application, judges are taking that into strong consideration and using their discretion to “no grant” an eviction even though the landlord is tired of waiting around,” said Maberry, who often staffs the help desk just outside the courtroom doors.
On the second floor of First City Court, buzzing with activity, you’ll often run into Christoph Bajewski, an attorney who represents several big landlords across the state with 5,000 units in all.
In late December, as eviction proceedings continued, Bajewski was approached in the hallway by a tenant who wanted to pay some of her rent with the cash-transfer app Venmo. With the assistance of the help desk, he said he’d work to help her.
Bajewski said landlords are not the bad guys. While the diversion programs and rental assistance have helped, he said it is too little and too late for some of his clients. Some tenants were behind as much as $45,000 to $60,000, he said.
“The landlords have been hurting for money like everyone else. I know people talk about the mean, evil landlords, but a lot of tenants received reprieve via the moratorium; landlords didn’t receive reprieves from insurance carriers, taxes, and repairs that need fixing,” Bajewski told the NewsHour. “When you have a complex where 70 percent of tenants are no longer paying rent, those bills add up very quickly so the landlords are hurting and suffering as well.”
Tenant advocates say the program is badly needed in a state with archaic tenant laws that favor landlords. However, those working the help desk say they’ve already seen a change with fewer default evictions.
“A lot more tenants are coming through the courthouse with legal support. Our eviction notification system alerts us when there is a new filing, and we immediately reach out with resources for the tenant,” Moran with JPNSI said. “So, it is helping get tenants informed. As a result, we’re getting people actually showing up to the proceedings. All those things paint a much better picture.”
Some advocates believe the new local pandemic protections are only a Band-Aid and do little to fix the root problem.
“New Orleans is in an incredibly precarious place when it comes to housing stability,” said Hill of the Louisiana Fair Action Housing Center. “The piecemeal and wishy-washy approaches are not going to solve this problem. If we want to live up to our values and if we want to ensure that everyone has a safe, affordable place to call home, we are going to have to do something different because what we’ve done before isn’t working. This is an opportunity to make a historic investment in stabilizing families.”
Housing advocates say the pandemic, rising evictions, and affordability crisis is a perfect storm that is changing “The City that Care Forgot.”
According to Willman, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has 20,000 families on its waiting list for subsidized public housing, and the waitlist is closed and not accepting new applicants.
The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center calculates what it costs to live in New Orleans, and the bottom line is bleak. The median income is $24,000. As of 2020, LaFHAC estimated the “housing wage” — or what it takes to afford a two-bedroom apartment — is $20.73 per hour in New Orleans. The minimum wage in Louisiana is $7.25 per hour. A person earning minimum wage would have to work roughly 96 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Advocates warn displacement by eviction can result in far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate loss of shelter. Eviction leads to job loss, health crises, impaired school performance, social disruption, and reduced options for future housing, according to New Orleans Evictions During COVID-19 report prepared in 2020 by Finger and her colleagues at Loyola University.
It’s exactly where Jennifer Arcement and her husband Donnie Diket find themselves as they sort through their belongings piled into what’s become locally known as the “eviction cairns.”
“I’m feeling helpless. It’s hopeless. I’m homeless. I’ll just be another human being on the street, and that doesn’t seem to mean anything to people,” Diket said as he sorted through a pile of documents left to the wind. “I didn’t expect it until after Christmas. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
The city says there has been no noticeable increase in the homeless population. Still, Willman says 350 new beds have been added just in case. The couple, now homeless, says they may need one of the beds soon as colder weather approaches.
“I hope people recognize that there are a lot of people in my situation that this is happening to,” Diket said as rain fell and he prepared to turn into his small tent with his wife for the night. “I want to bring awareness to it. I fell through the cracks, and I hope to God it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he added