A broad coalition of public health, legal, housing, and other organizations is urging New Orleans First and Second City Court officials to ensure no one is forced from their home before Aug. 24.

The group of 36 organizations, which includes the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, Step Up Louisiana, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Total Community Action, Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the  Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Legal Society, HousingNOLA and many others, sent a letter to city courts judges, constables and clerks, asking them to “extend current court closures to align with the tenant protections in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.”

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has extended the stay at home order through mid-May, but as May 16th approaches, the coalition says 176,000 renters in New Orleans face an uncertain future, the advocates say. Thousands of residents have lost income and jobs as result of the shutdown and were late on April rent. The groups are concerned that the stage is sent for “a possible tsunami of evictions and homelessness when courts re-open.”

To be sure, there have been several cases of landlords flagrantly ignoring no-eviction mandates reported by the media in recent weeks, including:

  • at the Cypress Park Apartments in Algiers, where owner Joshua Bruno posted eviction notices on several tenants’ doors despite the fact that the he receives federal subsidies;
  • the case of a local sanitation worker Bobby Parker, who was illegally locked out of his New Orleans apartment after paying his rent four days late by the landlord Bettie Salles who attempted to demand $2,395 over an unsubstantiated sum of back rent for the unit she placed on the market using the federally-funded Road Home Small Rental Program after Hurricane Katrina;
  • as well as several other cases of deeply marginalized residents who lack the ability to rent traditional housing getting booted from the extended stay hotels where they pay weekly or monthly to live, now finding themselves outside of the legal protections designed to protect renters.

The CARES Act prohibits owners of properties that participate in federal subsidy programs or have a federally backed mortgage from filing an eviction for nonpayment of rent, charging late fees, or issuing a notice to vacate for any reason until July 25th. It also requires all notices to vacate to provide 30 days before filing for eviction, which effectively prohibits eviction filings until Aug. 24. 

Essentially, the groups that have signed the letter are asking courts to not reopen the courts for eviction until Aug. 24 to ensure that none are filed before then.

Based on federal databases of multifamily properties like apartment complexes, the groups estimate the CARES Act protections cover at least 48 percent of all renters in New Orleans. The real share is likely to be much higher because the estimate doesn’t include rentals in doubles, triples, and quads with federally backed mortgages.

“Preliminary data from our Eviction Court Monitoring project shows that over 12 days of monitoring in the fall of 2019, the largest volume of cases came from six complexes,” said Veronica Reed, executive director of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. “Interestingly, all of these complexes are covered by the CARES Act. The vast majority of renters facing removal from their homes will be covered by these protections and since we face a long, slow recovery, it’s clear we all deserve the benefits the protections afford.”

Exacerbating matters is the fact that in New Orleans—and across the country—many people are still waiting on relief designed to assist with rent, mortgages and bill payments during an unprecedented time.

“I have yet to receive a stimulus check or unemployment after losing two jobs. Rent payments have not stopped and it’s demoralizing to feel you’re part of an entire demographic left out at sea,” said Daiquiri Jones, a local performer, producer, and member of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly. “These protections are absolutely necessary to create some certainty and breathing room for so many of us to even begin catching up on our bills.” 

While the protections in the CARES Act covers a large group of renters, advocates are  concerned that many do not have access the information needed to determine if they are protected. They contend it would “virtually impossible for a renter to look up their landlord’s mortgage to see if it is federally-backed. In many cases, that process requires the last four digits of the property owners’ social security number. Most renters won’t even know these protections exist and the Courts will need to do individual research on each property in order to ensure compliance with the Act.”

To that end, the coalition of organizations is essentially looking to the courts to provide consistency and protections outlined in CARES Act.

“When this pandemic first struck, our First and Second City Court officials acted quickly and made New Orleans a leader in helping our residents stay home and keep their homes,” said Cashauna Hill, Executive Director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “Though our federal government’s COVID-19 response has been inconsistent, they have the ability to step up at the local level and provide the certainty and protections our community needs.”

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