About 20 people are sitting in the New Orleans Civil District Court on a Monday morning in April, and the majority are landlords or their lawyers. The court is hearing evictions, as it does about four days a week at 10 a.m. The session is often over before 11. In New Orleans, judges are known for settling eviction cases in 10 minutes or less.
A few minutes is all it takes for the first four landlords called to the bench to win a court-ordered eviction, because their tenants did not show up to court. Judge Angelique A. Reed asks each landlord whether rent has been collected for the property, and if rent is “delinquent.” The landlords reply with “yes, your honor” and throw in a quick statement. One by one, Reed rules in their favor, granting each landlord legal permission to kick out their tenants.
Most states give tenants up to 30 days to move when facing eviction, but Louisiana’s laws are notoriously unforgiving. Landlords can file for an eviction in court five days after delivering a notice to vacate due to an alleged lease violation. The court sets a hearing date, and if the judge rules that the tenant indeed breached the lease agreement, then the tenant has just 24 hours to leave their home before law enforcement is allowed to toss their belongings on the curb. If the lease is month-to-month or there is no lease, a landlord can serve a 10-day eviction notice for any reason.
I write down the addresses of those being evicted as the clerk calls them out. Later, I compare these addresses to maps of New Orleans recently published in “New Orleans’ Eviction Geography: Results of an Increasingly Precarious Housing Market,” a report by the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a community land trust and housing justice group in Mid-City. Working with researchers at Loyola University, Jane Place used a trove of eviction court records to map out the “displacement crisis” across the city. They concluded that the citywide eviction rate in New Orleans is about twice the national average and alarmingly higher in neighborhoods where people of color live, particularly Black people.
Two addresses I noted in court are located in Broadmoor and the Upper Ninth Ward, where eviction rates are high and residents spend 30 to 50% or more of their income on housing. The other two evictions were granted for residents of the American Can Company, an apartment building near Bayou St. John in Mid-City. American Can originally benefited from public subsidies in exchange for offering affordable housing, but as the initial requirements for affordable units sunsetted, the building became notorious for evictions as managers replace the affordable units with luxury apartments.
From 2015 to 2018, an estimated 24,000 people were displaced by court-ordered evictions in New Orleans, and that does not include informal evictions that never made it to court, according to the Jane Place report. Eviction rates are up to four times the national average in Black neighborhoods, where the legacy of segregation and discriminatory lending practices known as “redlining” (in which predominantly Black neighborhoods were deemed “high-risk” or “hazardous” by lending institutions and denied investment capital) have economically sidelined residents for decades. In Black neighborhoods, one in four renters experienced a court-ordered eviction over the course of three years, compared to one in 24 in predominantly white areas.
I probably don’t have to tell you that rent is too damn high, but the numbers are staggering. Louisianians have seen rents rise about 19% over the past seven years, but in New Orleans, rents are up a whopping 29%, according to groups like HousingNola and the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance. About 60% of all New Orleans renters—including 72% of women of color—pay more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, the amount considered by the federal government to be a cost-burden. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated. Average income in New Orleans has dropped 8% since 2000, when rental prices were much lower than they are today, even when adjusted for inflation.
There are more troubling statistics where these come from, and together they illustrate how the housing crisis is squeezing low-wage workers out of desirable neighborhoods that provide amenities and access to public transit. Finding a new place to live requires time and money, and moving can seriously disrupt the lives of working people living on the economic edge. We’ve all heard about mass evictions, know folks who’ve been displaced, or been forced to move ourselves. The question now is what to do about it.
The courtroom clerk calls the next case, and this time the tenant is present. The landlord tells the judge that she works for a public housing complex, and the tenant has not completed the certification for her housing voucher. The tenant, a young woman, says she was out of town for a funeral, and bureaucratic delays prevented her from getting the paperwork together. “I tried,” she says nervously. But it’s not enough. Judge Reed explains that, without certification, the landlord cannot collect rent payments from the government. The paperwork and payments are past due. Reed rules in the landlord’s favor, giving the young woman 24 hours to pack her bags and go somewhere else.
Residents gather for “Speakout for Affordable Housing” on April 16, a demonstration at City Hall and march through downtown. | photo by Laura Borealis
A COMMON ENEMY
A few hours after eviction court, I meet Jane Place community organizer Frank Southall at a shared workplace in Mid-City, where members of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly are drawing up signs and banners for the group’s first public rally. Southall and Jane Place launched the Renters Rights Assembly last year with the idea of creating a grassroots “tenants union” for renters and anyone else interested in housing justice activism. The Renters Rights Assembly is technically independent from Jane Place, but so far the group has focused on backing Jane Place’s push to pass sweeping short-term rental regulations through City Council. One neon protest sign on the table reads “We Want Neighbors Not Spectators.”
“We need to prioritize people over investors. The current debate about short-term rentals has been focusing literally on people’s investments, and not about the well-being of native New Orleanians and folks who are working-class citizens of this city—the artists, the musicians, the culture bearers, the chefs, the maids who make this city run,” Southall says.
Transplants and natives have pointed fingers over post-Katrina gentrification for years, and now a common enemy has emerged: Airbnb and other platforms that allow landlords to take rental properties off the market and offer them exclusively to tourists. Recent studies of “touristy” neighborhoods suggest that an increase in short-term rentals corresponds with higher rent prices. However, there are plenty of other factors contributing to the housing crisis, including depressed wages and a near-total lack of legal protections for renters.
Raising the minimum wage and establishing basic rights for tenants (like the 30-day eviction notice that is standard almost everywhere else) requires changing laws in Baton Rouge, where wealthy right-wingers run the show. So advocates in New Orleans have focused on City Hall, where policymakers tend to be more progressive and aware of the city’s dire shortage of affordable housing.
Although the process has been slow-going, a majority of City Council members have proved willing to place some limits on short-term rentals, and not just to appease hotel owners. Nowadays, voters concerned about the constricting rental market or simply angry about competing for parking with drunk tourist bros are likely to outnumber those who are using Airbnb to exploit the local housing market. Still, local members of the so-called “vacation community” have found well-funded allies in Airbnb and HomeAway, which have deployed teams of lobbyists and public relations experts to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Short-term rental operators are fighting the city’s regulations and licensing requirements tooth-and-nail and show up in numbers to City Council’s daytime meetings, when everyone else is busy at work. “Who has free time to go to these meetings? Who has time to do this? It’s the wealthy,” Southall says.
Most states give tenants up to 30 days to move when facing eviction, but Louisiana’s laws are notoriously unforgiving.
Jane Place and other housing justice groups (there are several in town, including HousingNOLA, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, and the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance) scored a major victory in March when City Council passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires developers in certain neighborhoods to make a small share of newly-built rentals affordable to lower-income residents. The ordinance also provides incentives for developing affordable housing across the city.
City Council is poised to finalize short-term rental regulations recommended by Jane Place and other groups, with a vote expected as early as mid-May. At the center of these new rules is the so-called “homestead exemption,” which would require short-term rental operators to actually live in the homes they post on Airbnb. Residents could still rent out their house for Jazz Fest, but property managers would be banned from running defacto hotels instead of renting to locals. The City says most Airbnbs would not be affected; Jane Place estimates that up to 3,000 rentals could come back to the market. With another victory in sight, advocates are pushing for further reforms, including a rule requiring an affordable housing unit for every short-term rental in commercially zoned areas of the Central Business District.
“We need to create policies that will create more housing [and] more affordable housing,” Southall says. “The one-to-one match—one affordable unit to one commercial unit—will do that, and doing homestead exemption for residential short-term rentals will do that as well.”
While the latest short-term rental rules would remove incentives to replace local tenants with full-time Airbnbs, they do nothing for those facing displacement for other reasons. State law stacks the legal cards in favor of landlords, making it easy to force out lower-income renters and make room for higher-class clientele in gentrifying neighborhoods.
In Louisiana, tenants cannot withhold rent to force a landlord to make repairs, even if the property is totally uninhabitable. This helps explain why the tens of thousands of rentals in New Orleans fail to meet basic standards and suffer from leaks, electrical hazards, and roach infestations, according to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. If you don’t pay rent on time, you can be evicted, period.
Once a tenant has been evicted, it becomes harder to find a new place to live. Rental applications often ask about prior evictions, and screening companies dig through eviction court records to compile “do not rent lists” that are sold to landlords, according to the Jane Place report. Landlords are notorious for withholding security deposits, making it difficult for those living paycheck-to-paycheck to put one down on a new place. Renters with housing vouchers can lose them if they are not used in 60 days, so losing a security deposit could force struggling families to the back of the public housing waiting line—which is currently around 35,000 people long.
Tenants’ rights aside, being forced to move is a massive disruption. Full disclosure: I’ve known Southall for a few years now, and I started going to Renters Rights Assembly meetings both as a journalist and a concerned renter. At the time, my house in Mid-City had been up for sale for months. The lease had long since converted to month-to-month, and the roommates who signed it had moved out. When the house finally sold, we were given three weeks’ notice to vacate in the middle of January, when subletters visiting for Carnival season put pressure on the rental market. We hardly had enough time to find a new place, let alone hold our landlord accountable and fight for more time to move.
I found myself thinking: how much harder would moving be if I had kids, health problems, or a fixed income, or a serious criminal or eviction record, rather than white skin and a college degree? What if I had been evicted instead of asked to leave and had only five or ten days to get out, depending on how my landlord chose to use the law? No wonder they call it the eviction “crisis.”
In their eviction report, Jane Place recommends changing state law to allow for a 10-day grace period for late rent payments and give tenants more time to move when they are kicked out. State Senator Edward Price, a Democrat from Gonzales, has introduced legislation to do just that, but pushing it through the Republican-controlled legislature will be a fight.
Conservative state lawmakers routinely oppose reforms aimed at helping working people, even when they are introduced at the local level. Currently, Louisiana state law preempts local governments from raising the minimum wage, requiring public contractors to pay fair wages, and establishing paid sick and maternity leave for local workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a national non-profit think tank. This is known as “state preemption,” and each policy contributes to economic hardship and housing insecurity in its own way.
Royce Duplessis, a state representative from New Orleans who has introduced legislation that would allow cities to raise the minimum wage from a meager $7.25 an hour, told local activists at a rally in April that state preemption is “kind of like being in a bad relationship… You see, the state hasn’t been willing to do right by the cities,” Duplessis said.
To be fair, advocates were recently able to pass a law through the legislature that requires landlords to pay renters back three times their original rental deposit if they attempt to steal the deposit after move-out, providing a glimmer of hope at the state level. Still, our leaders in Baton Rouge are not known for their generosity towards the people of New Orleans. What can we do to protect each other in the meantime?
So far, the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly has provided know-your-rights trainings, free legal advice for renters, and a space to organize against Airbnb. At this point, the group looks more like the grassroots wing of a local non-profit than a tenants union leveraging its collective bargaining power. Such a union would make sense in an apartment complex or neighborhood where everyone shares the same landlord; obviously a large group of people threatening to hold out on rent is more of a threat than isolated renters who will quickly be evicted. But the rental scene in many New Orleans neighborhoods is a mix of small-time property owners and large management companies, which makes collective bargaining difficult.
Still, there is strength in numbers. A large group of renters could pull resources and hire lawyers to represent those in need. They could also identify neighborhood dilemmas and problematic landlords while connecting renters experiencing common problems along the way. In Los Angeles, Chicago, and other large cities, tenants unions have used social media campaigns to shame landlords and halt evictions, although such public activism carries the risk of retaliation. Tenants could call out abusive rental companies, but landlords have “do not rent” lists of their own.
This is the crux of the problem. Renters and landlords need each other, but landlords almost always hold the upper hand, since they pull the levers that provide a basic human need. This also means we are stronger when we organize together based on our common interests, rather than fighting rental battles on our own.
RESOURCES FOR RENTERS
For more on the Renters Rights Assembly, as well as housing statistics, reports, legal options, and general housing justice information, check out the following organizations:
Top photo by Mike Ludwig