EXPLAINER: Evictions in Louisiana could spike despite aid

Louisiana

A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Phoenix. Housing advocacy groups have joined lawmakers lobbying Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to extend his coronavirus-era moratorium on evictions when it expires, when the 120-day order ending July 22 was supposed to ensure people would not lose their homes if they fell ill to COVID-19 or lost jobs in the pandemic’s economic fallout. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month.

The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Louisiana:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Louisiana is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. The measure expired on June 5, 2020, leaving only the CDC moratorium. Housing advocacy groups have urged Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, to implement another Louisiana-based freeze on evictions, so far to no avail.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Louisiana received a $308 million share of federal rental assistance passed by Congress in December to help tenants and landlords affected by the pandemic. More money is expected from the federal coronavirus relief package passed earlier this year.

Edwards announced in March that the state would divvy up $161 million of the December allocation through a program run by the Louisiana Housing Corporation covering rental assistance in 57 of Louisiana’s parishes. The remaining money would go to the seven largest parishes — Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Lafayette, Orleans and St. Tammany — directly from the U.S. Treasury to run their own programs.

Through the state program, the rental assistance can go toward past-due rent and utility fees dating back to April 2020, along with up to three months of future rent payments for those deemed eligible. Priority is given to households where one person has been unemployed for more than 90 days and to households earning less than 50% of the area median income. But others are eligible.

Assistance is moving slowly.

By mid-June, $8.8 million in rental and utility assistance had been paid through the program, with another $1.1 million approved for tenants, according to the Louisiana Housing Corporation. Nearly 20,000 tenants have started applications for the aid, but only about 1,700 have been approved.

Meanwhile, frustrated tenants seeking aid from the parish-run programs also have complained about the sluggish pace of help.

“I think it is a dereliction of government’s duty to let landlords put people on the street when there is money on the table to help them,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “We need to adjust the timelines to end the moratorium until there’s been enough time to distribute the money.”

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Eviction hearings have continued in Louisiana throughout the pandemic.

Laura Tuggle, the New Orleans-based executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said landlords have found ways to avoid the federal freeze on evictions by using other reasons to oust people from their housing, such as noise levels or property damage.

“Our attorneys, they would say, ‘What eviction moratorium?’” Tuggle said. “In Louisiana, our staff are busier than they have ever been because evictions have never stopped.”

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Louisiana is ranked among the middle of states for apartment affordability, according to a 2020 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Vacancy rates across the state were about 8% before the pandemic, above the 7% national average. But that doesn’t necessarily hold true in the New Orleans area, which struggled with affordable housing shortages even before the pandemic.

As of May, the median monthly rent in the New Orleans and Metairie area had risen 8% over the last year to $1,350, according to a report released June 16 by Realtor.com. Median rents for a two-bedroom apartment rose 11% in the area to $1,550. One factor prompting the increase is pandemic-related delays in building more multi-family homes.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Louisiana. One indication of the scope of the problem is U.S. Census data showing nearly 69,000 state residents expressing concern that they could be evicted over the next two months.

But the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center and dozens of other advocacy groups warned Edwards in a letter that more than 101,000 households in Louisiana have reported being behind on their rent payments — nearly half of them households with children.

Tuggle worried the end of the federal eviction moratorium, combined with Edwards’ announcement that he’ll turn off federal pandemic unemployment assistance at the end of July, will cause an explosion in homelessness.

“Once landlords can file for nonpayment of rent, the defenses are extremely limited in the state of Louisiana,” she said.

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