New Orleans renters face toxic mix of crumbling homes, weak rights, eviction worries

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and triggered a mass exodus, the Crescent City prepares for new storms as it faces an entirely different crisis – the start of a possible wave of displacement that will carry through caused the coronavirus pandemic.

Black mold covers the ceiling where Brandie Barrow lived in Algiers, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States on August 21, 2020. According to Borrow, a 25-year-old cook and mother of two, her landlord moved her from that apartment to another in the same complex with slightly fewer but similar problems. She said she had 30 days to move out after complaining last week about mold, maggots and mildew she found in her daughters closet. REUTERS / Kathleen Flynn

The final eviction protection under the Coronavirus Act, known as the CARES Act, expires nationwide on Aug. 24. Millions of renters across the country are worried here, and evictions tend to hit the black communities hardest here. However, the people of New Orleans are facing a particularly toxic combination of high housing costs, low incomes, weak tenant rights, and crumbling and rundown housing stock.

New Orleans was hit by the coronavirus early here, and when tourism closed, almost one in five residents became unemployed in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the city slowly tries to reopen, that figure fell to 12.9% in June, but many people are still trying to catch up on lost coronavirus income, proponents say. Up to 56% of tenants in Louisiana are now at risk of eviction, the Aspen Institute calculates here the second highest percentage of tenants at risk in the country after Mississippi.

Tropical Storm Marco and Tropical Storm Laura, which may make matters worse, are pushing into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to flood the city again.

KATRINA’S LAST IMPACT

After Hurricane Katrina floods damaged 70% of the city’s housing stock 15 years ago in August, tens of thousands of buildings in New Orleans had suffered for years. Large public apartment buildings have been demolished due to residents’ protests and replaced with mixed-income homes that have put many housing units out of reach for the city’s poor.

New Orleans rents have increased 50% since 2000, while wages have only increased 2%, according to the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing rights organization.

More than half of the city’s 390,000 residents are renters, and of that 61% are considered to be billed and pay more than a third of their rental income, Jane Place calculates.

“People are paying more rent now than ever before in their lives,” said Frank Southall, chief organizer at Jane Place. “It’s not uncommon in a city where the median income for a single mother with one child is $ 25,000 to never see a one-bedroom apartment in good condition for less than $ 1,200.”

A blanket is not inappropriate

Amid the pandemic, housing advocates say some landlords are taking advantage of tenants’ vulnerable position.

“We see landlords refusing to make necessary repairs that are required by law when you owe them money now,” said Amanda Golob, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

De Borah Wells, a 49-year-old cook who worked at Commander’s Palace Creole restaurant before she went on leave in March, said her landlord threatened to evict her after talking about and asking about her landlord’s treatment of tenants complained about the repairs to her home, including the collapse of her kitchen ceiling in June.

“I just wanted something decent. I don’t think a blanket is that unreasonable! “Said Wells, who was negotiating the August rent with her landlord about the necessary repairs, but the deal failed, according to correspondence between her and her lawyer. “I can see outside from my kitchen, inside.”

Wells took her landlord to justice. On Friday, the landlord released her from her lease, she said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

In Louisiana, landlords are only required to give five days notice before filing eviction notices. This is possible if the payment is made even a day late.

And although landlords are supposed to be doing repairs to keep the houses habitable, tenants can’t withhold rent until it’s complete, leaving little recourse.

“The tricky thing is that it is difficult to move around, especially with low-income people,” Golob said, referring to unreturned deposits or first month rent, and specifically the impact of COVID-19 on rental searches. “Some people stay in pretty dire conditions because it’s better than sleeping in their car.”

Brandie Barrow, a 25-year-old cook and mother of two, said she could keep her rent updated despite the restaurant she works in during the pandemic.

After complaining last week about mold, maggots, and mildew that she found in her daughters’ closet, she said her apartment complex had given her 30 days to move out. Your landlord did not respond to voicemail requests for comments.

“How inhuman. Why should I have to pay somewhere where I’m not happy? “Said Barrow.

Tammy Esponge, the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Apartment Association, an association of rental homeowners, said she thought concerns about mass evictions are exaggerated.

The group had encouraged landlords to work with residents to develop payment plans. So far, the eviction rate in Louisiana has been 5%, although it acknowledged that it was higher for some individual properties.

“Landlords don’t want to vacate. You’re losing money, ”said Esponge.

Even so, Wells, who moved into her home last September, said she was considering leaving town altogether. “Worse, I can go back to Chicago, where my parents and boyfriend are,” she said.

Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Kathleen Flynn in New Orleans; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker

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