When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI) knew that our city’s housing crisis was only going to get worse. Much of New Orleans’ economic lifeblood, from restaurants to hotels, suddenly became shuttered.
For years, Jane Place has researched the eviction crisis in New Orleans. We have analyzed three years of court records alongside Dr. Davida Finger of Loyola University. The records revealed that pre-pandemic, New Orleans experienced evictions at double the national rate. More than five percent of all rental households underwent evictions each year. In some majority Black neighborhoods, the eviction rate exceeded ten percent of all renters.
Jane Place has also trained volunteers to observe court proceedings. They collect deep, qualitative and quantitative data to determine who is getting evicted, and why. Our monitoring project definitively found that evictions predominantly impacted Black renters. While 59 percent of the population in Orleans Parish is Black, more than 82 percent of eviction proceedings observed by court monitors involved Black tenants, with nearly 57 percent of eviction proceedings brought against Black women. Researchers estimate that upwards of 30,000 households in New Orleans are at risk of eviction in the coming weeks. Based on the data, we know that evictions will disproportionately impact Black residents.
The Jane Place staff was momentarily relieved when Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which put a federal moratorium on evictions until July 25, 2020. The moratorium stayed evictions for non-payment of rent in properties with federally backed mortgages or properties that accept Section 8 vouchers. The Act required landlords to issue 30-day notices to vacate.
We knew that getting this information into the hands of protected tenants was of the utmost importance. We knew that some landlords were continuing to issue eviction notices to tenants, assuming that they would not know about the CARES Act. Their hope was that the tenants would vacate the apartments out of fear. Understanding that, we worked with members of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly (RRA) to create a flier informing tenants of their rights; and we created a map of all of the multi-family properties in Orleans Parish covered by the CARES Act.
Members of the Assembly fanned out across the city, placing fliers in the common areas of apartment complexes covered under the Act. Organizers spoke directly with tenants, most of whom did not know about the eviction moratorium. Not surprisingly, their landlords had not informed them of their protected status under the CARES Act.
On July 24, Jane Place received a cease-and-desist letter from Stephen L. Miles, the attorney for Metrowide Apartments. We were accused of trespassing on Metrowide’s property. Jane Place had become familiar with Metrowide and its owner, Joshua Bruno, through our evictions court monitoring program. Mr. Bruno owns hundreds of sub-standard rentals across Orleans Parish but lives in luxury near Audubon Park. He often evicts impoverished tenants in court, but was caught distributing illegal 3-day eviction notices to tenants covered by the CARES Act.
According to Mr. Miles, the evidence of trespassing was one of our fliers regarding the CARES Act that was discovered on a Metrowide property. But a flier alone is not evidence of trespassing. Joshua Bruno is deploying the same fear-mongering techniques he uses to evict his tenants with the issuance of the cease-and-desist. He is trying to prevent us from informing his tenants of their rights.
In response, we are tabling on the sidewalk outside of Mr. Bruno’s apartment complexes. Our goal is to reach residents and inform them of their rights. Mr. Bruno accepts Section 8 vouchers at many of his apartment complexes. So tenants in those buildings are protected by the CARES Act.
Jane Place is committed to ensuring that all tenants know their housing rights during this unprecedented economic and public health crisis. We will not be intimidated by any attempts to keep tenants from learning critical information regarding their protection. We urge renters who are living in substandard conditions, being threatened with evictions, intimidated or harassed to reach out to us. We want to hear their stories. We have built relationships with tenants across New Orleans, and would love to give them our support.
Breonne DeDecker is the Program Director of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a community land trust and housing rights organization. To reach out to Jane Place, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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