From Sept. 7, 2021, line repair workers restore power near an apartment building in New Orleans. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens.)

Gov. John Bel Edwards has issued an executive order that freezes eviction proceedings until September 24 statewide.

The order, issued Monday evening, pauses all legal deadlines in the state until Sept. 24, which is a Friday. Evictions in New Orleans and many storm-affected areas had already been paused with local courts shut down after Hurricane Ida.

“Basically what it does is it suspends all deadlines in the code of civil procedure,” said Hannah Adams, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “What that does in the case of evictions is, it suspends all the deadlines in the eviction process.”

Landlords need to give tenants five days notice before filing eviction paperwork, and then there are further wait times before a landlord can actually remove the tenant. None of those can proceed until Monday, Sept. 27.

Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for the governor, confirmed that interpretation. “It moves all legal deadlines, it’s not specific to evictions. Evictions are a court proceeding.”

Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center Director Cashauna Hill and Loyola Law Professor David’s Finger wrote a letter to the governor last Tuesday requesting an eviction pause, either across the state or in storm affected regions.

“Evacuated tenants would not have received notice of their court dates, and would not have been able to attend court,” Maxwell Ciardullo, policy and communications director for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, wrote in a follow-up statement emailed to the Lens. “If evicted they would not have been able to return home to remove their belongings.”

The Fair Housing Action Center and Adams said that along with evictions for failure to pay rent,  the order also applies to force majeure evictions, in which a landlord evicts a tenant because of serious property damage.

Adams said that even if a property is completely destroyed, “the landlord can’t throw your stuff out. They still need to go to court, so a judge can decide if the law applies.”

And if a property is substantially damaged, the tenant actually has the right to end the lease, not the landlord.

However, the order does allow landlords to enter rental properties to make repairs, and to take possession of “abandoned” property.

“Our advice to renters is, if you’re evacuated, tell your landlord you haven’t abandoned your property,” Ciardullo said.

Adams said that tenants should communicate that to landlords by text or some other form of writing. (SLLS also published a renter FAQ on its blog.)

“We’re very anxious about this, that landlords are just going to go in and toss people’s stuff out,” Ciardullo said. “There’s a lot of concern about that, because landlords have been looking for ways to get around the eviction moratorium for months. It’s just easier for them to do when renters aren’t there.”

“We’re already hearing about this in Houma,” Adams said. “Landlords saying if you can’t make it back from your evacuation spot by x date, we’re going to consider it abandoned. That’s not something a landlord can do legally.”

After Hurricane Laura, housing lawyers told Southerly that in spite of a federal eviction moratorium, Lake Charles-area landlords began carrying out evictions via loopholes in the law, leading to a spike in homelessness.

And Adams said that when the governor issued a similar stay on evictions last year, landlords “took the law into their own hands.”

“We saw them changing locks, cutting off utilities, forcing a tenant to move without having to go to court. Those actions are illegal. Landlords need to understand that those types of actions are illegal.”

“The suspension of evictions is a really good first step,” said Ciardullo. “The governor needs to extend this until the vast majority of emergency rental assistance funds are fully dispersed.”

The Associated Press reported on Aug. 1 that Louisiana has received $550 million in federal relief to distribute to renters and landlords, but that only $50 million “in rental and utility assistance” had been paid out.

Ciardullo said that 57 percent of renters in Louisiana live in storm-affected parishes, and that before the storm, 174,000 Louisiana households were behind on rent, and more than 100,000 believed they’d be evicted within two months.

“That’s more than the entire population of St. Tammany Parish that expects to be evicted on September 27,” he said. “ And they’ve lost at least a month in gathering paperwork… We believe [the governor’s office] should extend this until the money has gone out the door.”

On Aug. 2, the first weekday after the federal moratorium expired, the First and Second City Courts, New Orleans’ eviction courts, received 62 filings. (The Biden administration put another moratorium in place that week, but it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court late last month.)

Ciardullo said that rental assistance programs should adjust their procedures based on an Aug. 25 Treasury Department guidance designed to accelerate the distribution of assistance funds. Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, and East Baton Rouge all administer their own rental assistance programs. State agencies administer the programs in other storm-affected parishes.

That guidance allows renters to self-testify, rather than provide many required documents. And it allows rental assistance programs to distribute funding directly to renters. That could be especially important because across the country, some landlords have refused to accept rental assistance on behalf of their clients, opting to evict them instead.