A little after 10 a.m. Monday morning, the First City Court of New Orleans granted an eviction order for the first time in over three months. First City Court handles the majority of evictions on the east bank of New Orleans, while Second City Court handles the majority of those on the west bank.
Both courts temporarily stopped hearing eviction proceedings in March, under local court orders and a statewide moratorium signed by Governor John Bel Edwards, in response to the burgeoning coronavirus crisis.
Those orders expired on June 15, allowing landlords to file for new evictions for the first time in months. But Monday’s hearings didn’t involve any of the newly filed evictions. Instead, the court considered evictions that were filed in March, but we’re put on hold when the coronavirus shut the court’s down.
First City Court won’t hear the newly filed cases until Monday, July 6. Court spokesman Walt Pierce told The Lens last week that was also the case for Second City Court. However, he told The Lens on Monday that Second City Court would be hearing new eviction cases starting on Tuesday, June 30.
Although Monday’s evictions were filed before the courts shut down, the global pandemic was nonetheless a factor in several of the hearings.
“We gotta be aware and cognizant of the reality of life right now,” Judge Monique Morial said during one of the hearings. “Given the situation that we find ourselves in, the last thing that I want to do is contribute to an already dire homelessness problem in our community. I understand that landlords are entitled to their property. But I think also in the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to be a little bit compassionate in how we deal with these situations.”
In a typical “rule absolute” ruling, Morial gave tenants two days to move out. A notice would be put on the property the day after the ruling, which informs tenants they have 24 hours to vacate. But Morial urged several landlords to agree to give tenants extra time to find new housing. She said, however, that this was only a request she could ask of landlords, not an order she could impose.
“It doesn mean that I can always force a situation, but I can ask you, because of what we’re dealing with, if you’re willing to give her a couple weeks notice to vacate,” she said. “Because it’s not gonna be easy for her to find another place to live.”
The landlord that Morial was speaking to, Josephine Sterling, was trying to evict a woman and her grandchild who were not present in court. The landlord said that the original lease was with the woman’s daughter, and that the grandmother had moved in to take care of her grandchildren after the mother was shot and killed.
Ultimately, the landlord agreed to give the tenant another two weeks, until July 12, to move out.
“I was quite shocked when she did that for all of the cases,” Andrew Maberry, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services who represented several tenants on Monday, told The Lens. “But for someone who represents tenant rights, that’s something that we’re very happy to hear. We hope the judges will take her lead and continue doing something like that because she’s absolutely right. The time that we live in right now, regardless of what caused the eviction, someone’s going to need more time to locate a place and get somewhere settled than 24 to 48 hours.”
Morial continued to urge others to give additional time, to varying degrees of success.
“Because of the situation that we’re in, a 48-hour eviction is really not the Christian way to go, let’s just say that,” Morial told another landlord who eventually agreed to give their tenant an extra week to move out. “Could you move out of your house in 48 hours? I couldn’t. If you’ve lived someplace for several years, it’s not easy.”
One landlord went as far as to agree to give his tenant an additional three months to move out, until the end of September. But another landlord flatly refused to provide extra time, and the court granted an immediate eviction order that will force the tenant to leave by Wednesday at the latest.
“They can’t force the landlord,” Maberry said. “They can only express their alarm and awareness of what would happen if they went through with it.”
Gradual increase, not a wave
Although legal service organizations are reporting an overwhelming number of calls from tenants vulnerable to evictions, the last two weeks have not seen the huge wave of eviction filings that housing advocates feared would occur once the courts reopened. According to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, new eviction filings over the last two weeks have been roughly in line with the rate of new filings seen prior to the pandemic.
That doesn’t provide much comfort to many housing advocates, however.
“I think we will see a very strong uphill,” Maberry said. “I’m curious to see the gradual increase we’re going to see. The courts used this week as what I would call a trial run of sorts. And as they get acquainted, as they pick up week to week… I think more and more are going to come in.”
One major reason for the slower than expected initial rush to file evictions is that many property owners are temporarily restricted from evicting tenants until late August under federal law. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, temporarily bans evictions at properties that participate in a wide variety of federal programs, including Section 8 vouchers and federally backed mortgages.
“A significant proportion of rental housing in New Orleans that is vulnerable to eviction is covered by the CARES Act,” Breonne DeDecker of the Jane Place Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative told The Lens. “So it’s possible that some of the reason we’re not seeing the wave of evictions yet is because landlords are waiting for the CARES Act coverage to expire.”
The CARES Act prevents evictions in covered properties until July 25. But the law also requires landlords to give 30 days notice, in effect banning evictions until late August. Those protections don’t apply to evictions filed prior to the pandemic, however, and several of the cases on Monday featured tenants who paid rent using Section 8 vouchers.
Housing advocates, including DeDecker, had urged the courts to postpone all evictions until late August, in part to save the courts the headache of determining whether each property was covered by the CARES Act or not. Instead, the court is forcing property owners to fill out affidavits assuring the court they don’t participate in any federal program that would prevent the eviction from going forward.
Last week, the clerk of First City Court told The Lens that many people were turned away from filing for evictions after learning about the affidavit.
DeDecker also pointed out that most evictions don’t actually go through the courts, and are done more informally between landlord and tenant.
“There might have already been a wave of informal and illegal evictions as well,” she said. “That is very common in New Orleans and there are many stories in the media highlighting particularly egregious ones. We know many landlords take this into their own hands illegally. So it’s possible we’re seeing an uptick in illegal evictions that are not being captured.”
DeDecker, like Mabery, thinks that formal eviction filings will nonetheless rise over the coming months. Not only will CARES Act eviction protections expire, but the additional $600 federal supplements to unemployment benefits will run out at the end of July. Without those supplements, the maximum unemployment benefits that Louisiana residents can collect is only $247 a week — inadequate to cover the costs of living in New Orleans, critics argue.
“Extra unemployment is going to expire and the CARES Act protections are going to expire, and we are going to see a huge public health and housing crisis the likes we haven’t seen since immediately post Katrina,” DeDecker said. “Ultimately, reopening eviction court without ensuring that tenants can actually deal with their accumulated rent debts is a disaster. We need the state government, we need the city government, we need the federal government to step up and cancel rent and mortgages and supply enough funding to make sure people can pay their bills.”