The City Council’s recent non-binding resolution, which passed unanimously and urges local judges to suspend evictions until at least August 24, is a positive first step that must go further as a mandate. A firm moratorium banning evictions would align with the standards set up by the federally-established Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The current state-wide eviction mortarium, lasting until June 5 must be extended in line with the CARES Act.
As the City of New Orleans enters phase one of the its reopening plan, it must not allow discretion on evictions, and neither should the State of Louisiana. Courts must not evict people amid the current economic and public health catastrophe. Doing so will cause more homelessness, worsen the spread of the novel coronavirus, and increase trauma for our most vulnerable residents. The survival of our city depends heavily on prioritizing housing rights and justice like never before, and our system must not displace renters.
The federal CARES Act offers eviction protections to many renters until August 24 by forbidding owners of certain properties from filing an eviction for nonpayment of rent, charging late fees, or issuing a notice to vacate for any reason until after July 25. The CARES Act covers a substantial percentage of Louisiana renters. But neither courts nor tenants will easily understand exactly who is covered due to the inaccessibility of mortgage records and records of housing voucher use at private properties. Evictions must not proceed under these opaque circumstances.
The impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused rental costs to soar with levels (pre-COVID-19) still 31 percent higher than rents had been pre-Katrina. This is especially challenging in a city of renters — the majority of New Orleanians are renters — a staggering 52 percent. In 2017, 63 percent of renter households in the city were housing cost burdened, with 37 percent of renter households being severely cost burdened, meaning they dedicate more than 50 percent of their income towards housing and utilities costs. Severely cost-burdened households are more vulnerable to housing insecurity and eviction in emergencies as they have limited financial resources to rely upon as much of their income is devoted to their housing costs. With the loss of jobs among workers in industries hardest hit by the pandemic, we are now seeing an unprecedented economic and public health crisis that will have long lasting, negative impacts on our most vulnerable households. This vulnerability also reflects a deep inequity in New Orleans, where 4 out of every 5 cost burdened renter households are Black. This is unacceptable.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, New Orleans was in the throes of an eviction epidemic. In 2017, New Orleans’ overall eviction rate based on court records stood at 5.2 percent, nearly double the rate of evictions nationally at 2.8 percent. At that same time, the most eviction-affected neighborhood in New Orleans was Little Woods in New Orleans East, with an eviction rate of 10.4 percent. Little Woods is over 95 percent Black.
It is also becoming clear that the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and the evictions crisis are concentrated in the same predominantly Black communities. Close to 60 percent of the people who have died from the virus in Louisiana were Black. It is no accident that the locations of COVID-19 deaths track the city’s eviction geography. According to the Louisiana Department of Health, there are now more cases of the novel coronavirus in New Orleans East and parts of the West Bank than anywhere else in the city.
We can protect the public health of our community, as we begin the reopening process, by protecting the housing security of our community. Keeping courts closed will give the city, state, and federal governments more time to align the necessary policies and resources to protect both vulnerable tenants from eviction and property owners from foreclosure or financial hardships. If courts open before these policies and resources are put in place, we will see a surge of evictions that puts thousands of individuals and families at risk of homelessness and illness. Our local courts that handle evictions are not currently set up to accommodate virtual court proceedings or in-court appearances that involve hundreds of people appearing each day. Eviction courts must remain closed.
Davida Finger and Shana griffin are authors of New Orleans Eviction Geography: Results of an Increasingly Precarious Housing Market (March 2019).
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at email@example.com.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly identified the authors. We apologize for this publication error.