FIVE DAY NOTICE: OBSERVATIONS FROM EVICTION COURT

illustration by Ben Passmore
Published  September 2016

 

illustration by Ben PassmoreTanica’s been living in a motel on Airline Highway since her eviction one week ago. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and her 3-yearold daughter is sitting on the bed, picking happily at her lunch and watching women’s Olympic diving on the television. Tanica moves about, buzzing with stress, anxiously cleaning the already tidy room. Born and raised in New Orleans, she grew up in the B.W. Cooper Apartments, otherwise known as the Calliope Projects. She had to leave public housing when the Big Four (B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, C.J. Peete, and St. Bernard) were demolished after Katrina.

 

At first, it wasn’t that hard for her to find a place to live; she doubled up with friends to keep down costs. For the past few years, she says, she has struggled to find an apartment she could afford, let alone one that was within her budget and not falling apart. She’s been on the Section 8 waiting list for three years and is doubtful she’ll ever get a voucher.

 

She had reservations about moving into her last house, a double in Hollygrove, during the walkthrough. The apartment was dirty, and there were nails protruding from the floor and the walls of the bedroom closet, made out of splintering plywood. But she was on a tight budget and could afford the $650 per month. She signed the lease after the landlord promised to fix up the apartment. At the beginning of March, she and her daughter moved in. But the landlord never started working on the list of items that needed to be fixed that Tanica presented him. Most pressing was the electrical system—several of the outlets in the apartment were dead, which was troubling (decayed wiring can be a fire hazard).

 

By mid-summer, she was frustrated. Although an electrician had started work on the apartment, nothing else was getting done. She couldn’t pay for repairs out of pocket and knew that her chances of being able to deduct repair money were slim. She withheld her July rent in order to be able to save up money to move to another apartment, knowing she was not going to get her security deposit back if she told the landlord she wanted to leave. By the end of July, she was given an eviction notice and a date to appear at Eviction Court at First City Court in Orleans Parish.

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Eviction data is a blind spot in our understanding of how hard the housing crisis in New Orleans is hitting the most vulnerable among us—the working poor, folks

Eviction data is a blind spot in our understanding of how hard the housing crisis in New Orleans is hitting the most vulnerable among us—the working poor, folks with disabilities and restricted incomes, and people on Section 8. While it seems like evictions are increasing—I see piles of belongings on the streets of the 7th Ward on a regular basis—there’s no accessible data to analyze current and historical trends. We don’t know how many people are getting evicted, and we don’t know the reasons why. There isn’t data available reflecting the total number of evictions going through the court, and there is no way to know the most common reasons why tenants are evicted. A growing number of people are reporting that they are being evicted so the property can be converted into a short-term rental, or so the landlord can find a tenant who can pay several hundred dollars more per month in rent. And while some evictions move through court, most of them probably never enter into the legal system, instead remaining informal and not recorded anywhere.

 

In some cases, evictions are retaliatory. Tenants will complain about necessary repairs, and landlords will give them a five day notice. In some cases, tenants have tried to withhold rent to force repairs, but unlike other states where tenants have that power,  it isn’t legal for tenants  under Louisiana law. Rather than increase a tenant’s bargaining power, unpaid rent just leaves them more vulnerable to an eviction. Tenants are legally permitted in Louisiana to make repairs after providing written notice to their landlord, but many tenants cannot afford the up-front costs of major repairs. Sometimes tenants band together to try and get a court order for their landlord to make repairs, but that can backfire. Recently, a lawyer from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) represented tenants in a proceeding against a landlord with an estimated $60,000 in code enforcement fines on the properties they rented. The Judge ordered that the renters move out of the houses immediately.

 

“The tenants did such a good job convincing the Judge that the houses were uninhabitable, she did not feel comfortable letting them stay there,” said the attorney, Hannah Adams. Although the judge ordered the landlord to pay back the security deposits, the money wasn’t available for tenants immediately. “Now they have no money for moving expenses and nowhere to go.”

 

At her hearing, Tanica was an outlier—unlike most tenants, she had representation in court. An attorney from SLLS, which offers free civil legal aid, represented her in court. SLLS represents low-income tenants facing evictions, housing subsidy terminations, and landlord-tenant disputes, including situations where tenants live in unhealthy conditions and landlords will not make necessary repairs.

 

Statistics show that tenants fare better in court when they have a lawyer, but unfortunately not everybody has access to representation. Around the country, civil legal aid is severely underfunded, so low-income tenants are often on their own. In Tanica’s case, her attorney worked out a consent agreement under which she vacated the apartment willingly in order to avoid an eviction appearing on her record. Evictions can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s ability to secure housing in the future. Evictions show up on credit reports, which many landlords request during the application process. Some landlords specifically ask if tenants have ever been evicted in order to reject less desirable or In Orleans Parish, Eviction Court happens four days a week, Monday through Thursday. Court is scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but on this Tuesday it’s closing in on 10:30 and the Judge has yet to appear. Every seat is filled in the small courtroom, and people anxiously fidget their stacks of papers: lease agreements, rental receipts, eviction notices. The room is quiet. Abruptly, the Judge enters, sits, and a flurry of activity unfolds. The first three cases all involve the same property management company, all related to tenants who have not paid rent for the last two months. The tenants are not present. Three rules of possession are granted, and three evictions are processed in less than two minutes.

 

Many of the plaintiffs are large apartment complexes in the East, out on Chef Menteur Highway or Read Boulevard. Most of the apartments rent between $600 and $800 a month. Their cases go in large blocks, so each apartment complex spends 15 minutes evicting four or five tenants in a row. Most of the tenants are getting evicted for non-payment of rent. Some are no-shows, but some tenants are there to plead their case. They are behind in rent because they were injured and couldn’t make it to work. Their childcare fell through, and they lost their job. Their managers would not give them more than part-time work. In some instances, the judge brokers a payment plan between the tenant and the landlord, giving them another week to pull together the amount owed. But in most cases, the writ of possession is granted and the eviction proceeds.

 

In less than two hours, 15 people get evicted from their homes. Every person evicted is a person of color, primarily Black. The majority of people doing the evictions, either property owners, managers, or lawyers, are white. It’s a strong reminder of how deeply tied race and poverty are in New Orleans. According to The Data Center (an independent research firm focused on Southeast Louisiana), in 2013, 30% of white families in the city made over $105,910 a year, placing them in the top income bracket. Comparatively, only 7% of Black families were in the highest income bracket. The numbers are reversed at the bottom. A shocking 44% of Black families make less than $20,900 a year, compared to 17% of white families. An estimated 65% of Black children are living in poverty, compared to less than 1% of white children in New Orleans.

 

Poverty impacts housing accessibility and housing security. 55% of the city are renters, and 70% of renters are paying more than 30% of their income in rent each month, a threshold where they are considered rent burdened. Pre-Katrina, 24% of renters paid more than 50% of their income in rent each month. Now, 36% of renters are paying over 50%, meaning they are severely cost burdened and extremely vulnerable to economic shocks and housing insecurity. 78% of rental housing is substandard, with water leaks, black mold, unusable appliances, failing plumbing, and pest infestations. This all means that people, particularly low-income people, are paying too much to live in shoddy, unsafe housing. Worse yet, they have very little ability to get landlords to make necessary repairs, and find it hard to recoup their security deposits once they move.

 

As New Orleans becomes more unaffordable, more and more families are at risk of going through an eviction due to inability to keep up with housing costs. Data from other cities and states bear this out. Last year, the state of Georgia saw 200,000 evictions, the majority of which were due to people being unable to keep up with rent increases. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the setting of the sobering book Evicted by sociologist Matthew Desmond, sees roughly 16,000 families evicted each year. Nationwide, in 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting households were unable to keep up with their housing costs and thought it was likely that they would face an eviction soon.

 

During the three days I observe at Eviction Court, most tenants are evicted because they are behind on rent. In a few cases it’s because the house is getting sold. A few tenants show up just to try and extend the deadline by which they need to be out of the house. They don’t want to stay in the apartment because it’s in disrepair or because they have a bad relationship with the landlord, but they need a week to get out of the place and find a new house. This is particularly pressing for tenants on Section 8. If a Section 8 tenant is unable to find a landlord willing to accept Section 8 within 120 days of moving out of a house, they can lose the voucher and will have to reapply to the waitlist when it opens up again. The waitlist opens up roughly every seven years. Currently, there are 20,000 families on the list in New Orleans.

 

illustration by Ben PassmoreThe only cases when eviction isn’t granted is where the landlord has filed the wrong paperwork, failed to produce the witnesses needed to corroborate their claims against the tenants, or failed themselves to show up. “This does not mean it’s over,” the Judge warns the tenants. “All they have to do is file again and get a new court date.”

 

The final case I observe seems to be the landlord’s first time evicting anyone. She complains that the tenant hasn’t paid rent. Not true, the tenant interjects. He paid $180 in rent on the first of the month.

 

“Did you accept partial payment of rent this month?” the Judge asks the landlord. The woman says yes, but the outstanding balance is over $1,000. But it doesn’t matter that the balance is so large: if the landlord has accepted any payment of rent after the eviction was filed, the eviction would be thrown out, and the landlord would have to start the process over again. The landlord

would have to give the tenant another five days notice, then re-file for possession of the property and return to court on another day. The eviction being thrown out would only drag out the inevitable, but it would mean the tenant could remain housed for another week or so while he searched for other housing. But rather than dismiss the eviction, the Judge says that if the landlord pays the tenant back, the eviction can move forward. A check is written, and the case proceeds.

 

The tenant is upset about the condition of the house. The roof is leaking and the house feels dangerous, he says. But the condition of the house is not at issue, and the Judge ignores these comments even after the landlord admits that the roof is indeed letting in water. “But I’m working on it,” her husband says. “If you come by and look, you can see,” though the landlord seems worried that an officer of the court might actually come out and inspect the house.

 

The tenant on the lease, pleading for some sort of resolution in his favor, addresses the Judge using the New Orleans vernacular “Bay-bay.” She bristles, “I’m not your ‘bay-bay,’” but there seems to be a hint of a smile underneath. He says that he wants out of the house, but needs

time to find another place, a week or two at least. But the landlords are adamant—they want him gone in 24 hours. When the tenant starts to object that it’s too short of a time to gather his things and find another place, the judge explains that since today is Thursday, the 24 hours technically begins on Friday. And then it’s the weekend, and the landlords can’t come for a warrant until Monday, so he really has until Sunday to leave.

 

It’s the most giving the Judge has been with any tenant today. Perhaps it has something to do with the playful banter the tenant used, some kind of acknowledgement of the social rhythms and graces of New Orleans. Outside in the hallway, the tenant is still upset about the situation. The tenant’s husband, who works in construction, keeps talking about how the place should be condemned. “It ain’t no way to live,” he says about the house. “No way to live.”

 

***

 

Tanica has made the rounds at all of the homeless shelters, hoping a bed will open up. She just got a new job as an usher at the Superdome and is looking forward to football season when the work will be steady. Looking for another house has been slow. Everything is overpriced, or the landlords want a lot of paperwork proving that the applicant makes 3 or 4 times the rent, which she finds intrusive.

 

Back at the motel, her daughter is playing with her cell phone, pretending to make calls. “I’m just waiting for the phone to ring,” Tanica sighs. Waiting to hear back about an apartment, about space in a homeless shelter, waiting to know where she’s going to be living come Monday morning when she has to be out of the room. She’s worried about ending up in Jefferson Parish, far from her family and the Superdome. “I just need a roof over my head,” she says. “As long as I can get on a bus and get to work and take my daughter to the doctor, I’ll be fine. The last thing I want to do with my child is go under the bridge.”

 

illustration by Ben Passmore

Interested in learning more about landlord/tenant laws? Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, Stand with Dignity, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services will be co-sponsoring a free Know Your Rights teach-in on Saturday, September 17th, 2 p.m. at First Grace United Methodist Church, 3401 Canal Street. Childcare will be provided. For more info, check out jpnsi.org/community-building-outreach. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) provides free civil legal assistance to individuals who qualify as low-income across 22 parishes in Southeast Louisiana. SLLS helps with landlord-tenant, employment, public benefits, family law, consumer, foreclosure, and disaster-related legal issues. Call (504) 529- 1000 to reach the New Orleans office, or visit slls.org for more information.

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