A group of anti-eviction protesters blocks entrances to First City Court and Civil District Court on July 30, 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Hundreds of protesters calling for a halt to evictions on Thursday blocked the main entrance and two side entrances to the building that houses First City Court, the main eviction court for the east bank of New Orleans. 

The protesters, some of whom were chained and locked together, also blocked the two main entrances to City Hall, which is right next to the court building, causing the city government to halt public access and send out warning text messages to city employees.

“Everything’s closed,” a security guard at City Hall told The Lens around 1:00 p.m. 

The protest was organized by New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, although decision making throughout the day seemed to be fairly decentralized. The overarching message was calling on City Court Judges, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards to either stop all court evictions or provide adequate rent assistance to the tens of thousands of New Orleans residents struggling to meet their bills due to the coronavirus crisis, which has led to mass business closures and skyrocketing unemployment.

In March, Cantrell and Edwards both issued moratoriums on evictions as the long-term reality and economic implications of the coronavirus were becoming clear. Those expired in June however, and First City Court is now issuing eviction orders again. 

A large group of renters is still protected from losing their homes by the federal CARES Act, but that protection is also set to expire in less than a month. Meanwhile, the $600 weekly unemployment supplements provided by the CARES Act — which have been a lifeline to many unemployed workers — have ended.

Some speakers at the demonstration also raised issues with the city’s decision to hire a former short-term rental executive, Peter Bowen, to a top position in city government to manage land use regulation. Many housing advocates believe the proliferation of short-term rentals in the city has contributed to rapidly rising rents and home prices. 

Protesters turned away dozens of people trying to access the courts and City Hall on Thursday, blocking entrances with their hands raised, chanting slogans including, “Court is closed, go home” and “Housing is healthcare.” Aside from some minor jostling, the interactions observed by The Lens were relatively calm. 

The court building also contains Orleans Parish Civil District Court, which handles major civil cases. And people who were trying to access the courts for cases that had nothing to do with evictions were nonetheless blocked from entering. The Lens observed protesters making exceptions for some people, mainly for renters fighting eviction proceedings.

“All of the judges, attorneys, litigants, witnesses and visitors seeking entry to the courthouse were affected in one way or another by the activities outside of the courthouse — not just the parties to eviction proceedings,” courts spokesman Walt Pierce said. “Judges are rescheduling cases where needed for that very reason”

For months, affordable housing advocates have warned of this moment. They say several events are coalescing to create the risk of a mass exodus of New Orleans locals on par with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those include the reopening of eviction courts, the end of federal eviction protections, the uncertain future of expiring federal unemployment benefit supplements and an ongoing recession

Protesters say those issues, combined with a housing affordability crisis that long preceded the coronavirus crisis, are setting up a disaster.

“We can’t have tens of thousands of people out on the street dying,” said Frank Southall, one of the organizers of the protest and lead organizer for Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, an affordable housing group. “There’s only two options: You give rental assistance to every unemployed and working class person in this state or you shut down eviction court.”

Court evictions in Orleans Parish were put on hold in March under local and statewide orders as the coronavirus crisis first began to unfold in Louisiana. Those orders expired last month, however, and on June 29, First City Court processed its first eviction in more than three months.

Even though the courts are open, there is still a large group of renters that remain protected from evictions, at least for the time being. Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, landlords of properties that participate in a wide range of federal housing programs, including federally backed mortgages and Section 8 housing vouchers, could not begin the eviction process until July 25. 

That date has already come and gone, but the CARES Act also requires those landlords to provide tenants 30 days notice to leave, effectively stalling the completion of evictions on those properties until Aug. 24. 

Housing advocates, however, say the CARES Act protections aren’t adequate even if they weren’t expiring. The act only disallows evictions for nonpayment of rent, not for other lease violations. Breonne DeDecker, program director for Jane Place, said that initial data over the past month from court monitors shows “a large increase” in the number landlords in City Court using justifications other than nonpayment to evict tenants. 

“Folks are getting evicted for playing music too loudly, for having a small barbeque grill, for ‘drainage issues’ and for littering,” Dedecker said in a statement. “This is how landlords are getting around CARES Act coverage, which explicitly bans evictions over non-payment of rent but does not clearly protect tenants from other types of evictions. This shows why piecemeal protections are not adequate- we need to close down court to protect everyone equally during this unprecedented economic crisis and ongoing pandemic.”

Along with the end of the CARES Act protections, advocates are worried about a rapid uptick in residents unable to pay rent now that the $600 federal weekly supplements to unemployment benefits, also provided by the CARES Act, are expiring. Congress has been working on another coronavirus aid package, but the Senate on Thursday was at an impasse on an extension.

Without the federal supplements, Louisiana unemployment benefits cap out at $247 a week, far from enough to survive and pay rent in New Orleans, advocates argue. 

Getting a job, meanwhile, is simply not an option for many people, with businesses shutting their doors or laying off workers, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industry. The coronavirus led to a global recession that’s forced one in four Louisiana workers to file for unemployment, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

And although the state began reopening the economy in May, both the city and state have started clawing back and shutting businesses down again in response to a spike in coronavirus cases in Louisiana. Governor John Bel Edwards recently indicated that bars could remain closed across the state until a coronavirus vaccine is developed. 

All of this happened when the city was already facing an affordability and eviction crisis, housing advocates say. A 2019 study from Jane Place in March found that 5.2 percent of New Orleans residents were subject to evictions in recent years, double the national average. That number, the study notes, doesn’t capture many informal evictions that happen outside of the courts. 

Both the city and state have poured millions of dollars into rental assistance programs in recent months, but those have failed to meet the demand. A recent state program to provide $24 million in rental assistance had to be suspended after just four days when 40,000 people rushed to apply. A recently enacted city rental assistance program has $1 million in funding.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, the Mayor has worked to address housing issues related to COVID,” Cantrell’s communication’s director, Beau Tidwell, said in a statement. “The city has implemented a rental assistance program, created an emergency housing program for the homeless and worked to provide legal assistance to residents facing eviction. Unfortunately, local resources are limited, and immediate federal action is required to provide support and intervention to those hit hardest by the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, including those facing housing insecurity. We will continue to work with our federal partners to stress the necessity of federal assistance that meets the needs of our citizens.” 

Southall and other protesters said that far more aid is needed to avoid massive displacement, homelessness and public health problems. Beyond the negative health impacts that evictions usually cause, the ongoing pandemic makes the prospect even more dangerous. Southall said that while he understands it takes time to build programs and find funding, the city and state need to shut down evictions in the meantime to stop a crisis. 

“What we’re saying is that we understand you can’t enact these plans right now, but re-close eviction court until you can, and then figure out what you need.”

This article was updated to include a statement from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...