A landlord who twice threatened to evict his tenants in the spring — in spite of state and federal moratoriums due to the COVID-19 crisis — has done it again, according to tenants’ legal advocates. The third attempt was made late last month at an Algiers apartment complex, even though the tenants should still be temporarily protected from being kicked out of their homes under federal law.
On July 29, Residents at the Cypress Park Apartments in Algiers received notices with a bold header that said “THREE DAY NOTICE TO PAY OR VACATE.” The company that manages Cypress Park, MetroWide Apartments, sent similar at the apartment complex in the spring in a controversy covered by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.
The new eviction notices are illegal under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, according to Hannah Adams, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.
Local and state eviction freezes expired in June. The federal CARES Act moratorium expired on July 24, allowing certain landlords to begin eviction proceedings. But the law still provides protections for their tenants.
Under the CARES Act, landlords whose properties have used a wide range of federal programs — including federally backed mortgages and Section 8 housing vouchers — have to provide tenants at those properties 30 days notice before evicting them.
Some of the apartments at Cypress Parks are subsidized with Section 8 vouchers, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans. That makes the whole property subject to the 30-day rule, something that MetroWide hasn’t disputed in eviction proceedings, Adams said.
This is the third time since the beginning of the pandemic that MetroWide and its owner, Joshua Bruno, have come under fire for trying to evict tenants. On March 18, just days into New Orleans’ economic shutdown in response to the virus, MetroWide sent notices to some tenants in his other properties announcing that “evictions will continue,” despite the fact that the city had temporarily shut down eviction court and Gov. John Bel Edwards had placed a moratorium on evictions statewide. Bruno said the notices were a mistake, blaming a miscommunication with a member of his staff.
But in April — when local, state and federal eviction freezes were still all in effect — the company sent a round of three-day eviction notices to Cypress Park residents, telling them to pay up or leave.
“Bruno, I’m dealing with constant issues with him, this is just the latest,” attorney Hannah Adams told The Lens.
Bruno, contacted through MetroWide, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Adams said that the CARES Act only blocks Bruno from evicting tenants because of nonpayment of rent. The law still allows landlords to evict for other lease violations, such as damage to the property. Adams said that Bruno has used other justifications besides nonpayment of rent to try and evict tenants. Last month, one housing advocate told The Lens that this tactic — filing evictions for small lease violations instead of nonpayment of rent — was a growing trend in recent eviction proceedings.
MetroWide acts as Cypress Park’s manager. Another of Bruno’s companies owns the complex. That company, Cypress Park Apartments II LLC, has filed for 15 evictions since the onset of the pandemic, according to Walt Pierce, spokesman for Civil District Court and First and Second City Courts of New Orleans, which handle evictions. Bruno is the agent and sole listed member of Cypress Park Apartments II, according to business records filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State.
Westbank Holdings, another company registered under Bruno’s name, has filed for 31 evictions since the beginning of the pandemic. Westbank Holdings, according to records from the Orleans Parish Assessor’s website, owns two properties in New Orleans — the Oakmont of Algiers apartments and another nearby apartment complex on Vespasian Street.
One of Adam’s clients, Sada Jones, lives in Cypress Park and received one of the notices two weeks ago.
“Pretty much everyone on my side of the building got one, those that hadn’t left already,” Jones said, estimating it was delivered to roughly 20 apartments. “How can you have the conscience to send that letter, knowing that I don’t want to not pay rent and I’m not refusing to pay rent. You’re not doing your job as a landlord and as a human being period to be empathetic and sympathetic to people’s situations.”
Jones said she was furloughed from her job as a cook at the Roosevelt New Orleans hotel in March and has been out of work since.
‘A lot of people aren’t totally aware of what their rights are’
Court evictions in New Orleans restarted in June after a four month reprieve. Many New Orleans renters, however, are still protected from eviction under the CARES Act. The law banned evictions at covered properties until July 25. Combined with the 30 notice requirement, renters in covered properties can’t be evicted through a court until August 24.
The CARES Act sets a clear expiration date for the moratorium. The 30-day notice requirement, on the other hand, has no explicit end date, according to Adams.
“The law does not have an end date for that 30-day notice. So advocates are really talking about this right now: When does it end?”
She said that a plain reading of the law indicates that the 30-day notice requirement is here to stay in perpetuity, unless Congress goes back and amends the law.
“Ongoing compliance with the 30-day notice requirement is an issue that I think is going to be an issue at the end of the month,” Adams said.
Adams points out that currently, New Orleans courts are forcing landlords to fill out affidavits showing that their properties aren’t covered by the CARES Act before going forward with an eviction. She said that under her reading of the law, the courts will have to keep collecting these affidavits to ensure compliance with the 30-day notice requirement.
“I think that landlords are completely unaware of the implications,” she said. “I think judges are fairly unaware as well.”
Renters are likely even less aware than landlords and judges. And that’s important, Adams said, because a judge can only ensure compliance with the law if the case comes through their court. That doesn’t help people going through informal evictions, where landlords like Bruno simply tell tenants they have to leave.
“If the landlord were to file an eviction prematurely, I’m pretty confident we’d be able to get it thrown out as premature,” Adams said. “However, that doesn’t solve the problem of all the people who don’t make it to our office.”
Adams said that renters are routinely coerced to leave by landlords, even if they may have been able to beat the eviction in court.
“The problem is that some people are going to get this notice and get scared and leave because they don’t know any better,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t totally aware of what their rights are.”
That’s exactly what happened when Bruno sent out similar eviction notices in April, according to Jones.
“When the first round came the first time, a lot of people did automatically leave,” Jones said.
If people voluntarily leave, Adams says there’s not much legal recourse for renters, even if the notice was issued improperly.
“If a tenant gets this notice and moves, there’s not much that can be done at that point,” she said. “It’s still a little unclear whether you can sue for the enforcement of the CARES Act eviction moratorium as written. Because the term of the law was fairly short, I don’t know if anyone’s tried yet. So no, there’s no specific penalty in the CARES Act for landlords that don’t comply.”
Even so, she added that “we shouldn’t have to sue this guy every time he issues an illegal notice.”
‘What do I do now?’
Even if the 30-day notice requirement were universally enforced in perpetuity, it wouldn’t stop what housing advocates warn will be a wave of evictions and displacement after August 24. To avoid that fate, protesters recently called for evictions to be suspended altogether until the city, state and federal government can come up with adequate rental assistance to keep people off the streets.
Louisiana and New Orleans have both set up rental assistance funds in recent weeks. The state dedicated $24 million and the city dedicated $1 million, but both funds were quickly tapped after a flood of initial applications. And while the last five months have been financially challenging for thousands of residents, advocates fear that things are about to get even worse.
Many out-of-work residents and families have been able to stay afloat using the $600 federal supplements to unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act. Those payments expired in July. The benefits of other programs within the CARES Act — including $1,200 checks to individuals and Paycheck Protection Program loans — are starting to wear off.
“They’re not doing the $600 payments anymore, so it’s like, what do I do now?” Jones said.
Getting a job, meanwhile, is still a daunting prospect. It’s been five months since the city and state established severe economic restrictions to combat the virus. And although the state began reopening the economy in May, new outbreaks have stalled the state’s reopening plan for months.
While the 30-day notice requirement won’t solve the entire problem, both Jones and Adams argued the requirement, if enforced, can be vital for renters trying to land on their feet.
“The 30-day notice does help,” Jones said. “The three-day notice is kind of impossible.”
Adams said that because of the pandemic’s rapidly shifting nature, the 30 days can provide people with enough time to get money together to stay in their homes. That’s especially important right now, she said, as Congress debates another stimulus bill. The negotiations are far from over, but a central issue is the continuation of the weekly unemployment supplements.
“It buys people a few more weeks, but a few more weeks right now is critical. And the reason is because Congress has not passed a new stimulus law yet,” Adams said. “So a lot of people just lost all of their income overnight, basically. And in theory, in three or four weeks, they might have some of that back.”
Jones said that her plan is to move out by the end of the month no matter what. She said that she’s had several issues with Bruno. According to Jones and Adams, Jones hasn’t had electricity or air conditioning in much of her apartment since April. Jones said she stopped paying rent in May.
“It’s not that I don’t want to pay my rent, because that’s not how I was raised,” Jones told The Lens. “But I was also raised if your landlord isn’t up to par or doing what he’s supposed to be doing, you have the right to withhold rent.”*
Looking for a new place to live during a pandemic is no easy task, however. Jones said that her central issue finding a new home is that landlords are demanding proof of income, something she hasn’t had since being furloughed in March. She said that most of the landlords she’s talked to will not accept unemployment payments as proof of income.
“It’s so hard, because they’re asking for actual checks. Well, I’ve been on furlough for four months so I don’t actually have any. I have the money, I have all my money that I’ve saved up. But I do not have a steady income.”
She said she has a couple leads on landlords that will accept her unemployment as income, and that no matter what, she’s leaving Cypress Park Apartments at the end of the month.
“If I don’t have a place to stay at the end of the month I’m still going to move out. I’ll stay with family members or a hotel or something.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Sada Jones saying that she had stopped paying rent on the advice of her attorney. While that was what Jones told The Lens in an interview, SLLS attorney Hannah Adams contacted The Lens on Wednesday disputing that she had advised Jones against paying rent. Reached on Wednesday, Jones said she had been mistaken. Jones also said on Wednesday that she was mistaken in an interview about when she lost her job. It was March, not April. The article has been changed to correct both errors. (Aug. 12, 2020)