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by Ryan Whirty
Nichole Knight did everything she possibly could to hang on to her family’s rental unit.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still dragging on and the disruptions caused by Hurricane Ida, Knight and her husband were restricted to fewer work hours than they had before the pandemic hit, resulting in a steep loss in income, a blow augmented by the fact that both of them caught COVID in the disease’s earlier stages. (To add insult two injury, their two kids contracted COVID this summer.)
What money they did manage to scrape up went to pay utilities to keep the lights on and the water running so they and their two kids could have the basic necessities. But that left little funds left to pay the family’s overdue rent, and their landlady – who for the previous couple years had been friendly and accommodating – suddenly refused to work with the Knight family on the lagging rent.
“We had never been late for the last two years, and we always paid in cash,” Knight said.
But even that sterling track record meant little. Nichole said that even when the family was able to receive government-sponsored rental assistance payment, their landlady stubbornly wouldn’t accept the subsidized payments.
“She wouldn’t take the rental assistance,” Knight said, adding that the landlord wasn’t legally obligated to take the funds. “She kept telling us, ‘I don’t want to be involved in your charity.’ Why is there even rental assistance if your landlord won’t take it?”
Then the federal eviction moratorium was struck down by the Supreme Court in late August, and the family’s situation became even more precarious. The final blow was Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to let the state’s eviction moratorium. (Knight noted that the landlady even tried to kick the family out before the moratorium anyway, apparently violating the law.)
The Knight family thus ended up in eviction court after their landlady pressed forward with eviction last week, and despite receiving pro bono legal help from a community organization, the court granted the eviction request. The family had just a few days to pack up everything they own and get it to a storage unit, then leave their longtime home.
As of last week, the family was bunking up in an extended stay hotel in Slidell, but they’ll be unable to stay beyond this coming Friday. Drained of funds and without new accommodations, Nichole and her family have no idea what they’re going to do. Even their best preparation for possible eviction, it wasn’t enough.
“We tried to get everything done in advance,” she said. “We wanted to keep giving [the landlady] our rent. We wanted to stay there. We want to keep a roof over our kids’ heads.”
Knight isn’t alone in her challenges as a renter facing eviction following the lapsing of the CDC moratorium, especially in Louisiana. According to a recent study by MagnifyMoney, a country-wide resource for financial advisory opportunities, as of last month Louisiana ranked seventh in the nation in renters who are behind on rent who say they are likely to face eviction in the coming months.
The study found that 62.3 percent of people lagging on rent payments identify as facing imminent evictions, the seventh-highest percentage in the country. Overall, 27.1 percent of Louisiana renters are behind on their payments to landlords, a number that’s exacerbated now that the federal eviction moratorium is over. That figure ranks Louisiana third in the country in that demographic.
Country-wide, 15.4 percent of renters report being behind on rent payments, with 45.1 percent of those renters likely to face eviction within two months.
Jacob Channel, senior economic analyst for MagnifyMoney, said several factors contribute to Louisiana’s unsettlingly high ranking in the organization’s study, which was released last month.
Channel said the state’s high poverty rate, low average household income and state laws benefiting landlords all combine to place so many renters in a precarious situation home-wise because such factors prevent renters from saving up an emergency fund. He said relatively pro-landlord state laws also give renters very little wiggle room when dealing with landlords in the courts.
“These factors can put many renters in difficult positions as they mean that they’re less likely to have the cash necessary to weather an emergency, and that they might not have as much leeway when it comes to negotiating with their landlord,” Channel said.
He added that the road won’t get any smoother for renters in Louisiana trying to prevent eviction in the coming months. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the devastation caused by Hurricane Ida and the Sept. 24 lifting of the previous statewide eviction ban by Gov. John Bel Edwards all bearing down on state residents on top of the termination of the federal CDC eviction moratorium, the immediate future looks bleak for many Louisiana renters. (The CDC didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment by The Louisiana Weekly.)
However, Channel added that despite the steep challenges, there might be some rays of hope for struggling Louisiana renters, including signs of economic improvement and existing state-offered rental-assistance programs.
“The economy in Louisiana is showing some signs of improvement, meaning that more people are going back to work and making money that they can put toward things like rent,” he said. “Furthermore, the state does offer rental assistance programs that many renters can take advantage of. The more renters in need who use these programs, the less evictions we’re likely to see.”
Outside of government-sponsored rental-assistance programs, several local non-profit and volunteer organizations provide assistance – financial, legal or advisory – to renters, such as Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides legal aid to vulnerable populations.
Andrew Maberry, an SLLS staff attorney specializing in eviction support, said the stark reality facing my renters “definitely isn’t a pretty situation.” He said his organization was receiving dozens of calls from concerned renters even before the onset of the pandemic and the arrival of Ida, “and it’s only gotten worse.”
Existing state laws favoring landlords means that with the eviction moratoriums now ended, renters behind on payments in Louisiana face an unfriendly court system if their landlords bring legal action against them.
“There’s really nothing the law can do to prevent eviction if someone is behind on rent now that the moratorium is gone,” said Maberry, whose organization did its best to help Nichole Knight.
He said that rental-assistance programs can help residents make ends meet, including paying rent, at least temporarily. However, the application process for such programs often takes agonizingly long, and if and when renters are approved for assistance, there can sometimes be complications in getting assistance payments to landlords.
Maberry noted, however, that an eviction means a landlord will not get rental payments anyway with no tenant in place at all, at least until he or she finds new tenants, which means that many landlords are willing to work with existing tenants who are behind on rent to come up with a repayment agreement without resorting to costly legal action.
He said landlords themselves could be struggling to make their own mortgage payments on their property because the landlords don’t have enough rental revenue, which can also motivate them to work out an agreement with tenants.
“You can still work it out,” Maberry said. “Repayment agreements can be your best friend.”
As a result, Maberry said, he and other staff attorneys at SLLS urge struggling renters to be proactive with their landlords in addition to finding legal help.
“It all comes down to being willing to work together and to connect,” he said. “It does not have to be a problem if you can work together.”
Channel stressed the importance of exploring and utilizing any government programs, whether offered by the state or other levels of government, designed to help struggling renters make their rent payments. He suggested the Web site lastaterent.com for information about such programs and advice to renters who apply to them.
Beyond that, Channel said, citizens – both renters and non-renters – to lobby their elected leaders for legislation or other measures that could assist struggling renters.
“Outside of taking advantage of already established rental assistance programs, concerned citizens should make their voices heard by local and state governments,” he said. “For example, advocating for government assistance in building more affordable housing can help decrease the number of people who face eviction.”
U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-Louisiana, told The Louisiana Weekly that he continues to pursue assistance for those with housing instability because potential homelessness for citizens has far-reaching negative consequences.
“During a global pandemic and after a natural disaster like Hurricane Ida, safe and affordable housing is critical to public safety,” Carter said.
He said that the $308 million that Congress allocated to Louisiana for emergency rental assistance last December has slowed to trickle thanks to a complicated, lengthy distribution process.
“We must cut through the red tape and get rental assistance funds out,” Carter said. “This is important to both Louisiana’s renters and to our small property owners who depend on rent as part of a fixed income.”
He noted that he and other Congressional legislators have put forward the Federal Disaster Housing Stability Act of 2021, and the Protecting Renters from Eviction Act, legislation he described as “two policies that would help people stay housed in these unprecedented times.”
The Federal Disaster Housing Stability Act was introduced to the House of Representatives in August and was referred to the House Committee of Financial Services. The Protecting Renters from Eviction Act was introduced in late July and now sits with the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Troy A. Carter Sr. released the following statement on the passing of former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell.