Above: BOSSIER CITY LA., U.S.A. – March 30, 2020: Despite the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, a sign in the parking lot of an apartment complex reminds renters that “Rent is due on the 1st.“ Photo credit: Allen Smith.
Last Friday, when Gov. John Bel Edwards ushered Louisiana into Phase One of its economic reopening, he announced that the moratorium on evictions – which was put in place on March 16th – would be extended to June 5th.
Notably, though, in a state where nearly half a million people have filed unemployment claims, tenants who still owe rent can be evicted for non-payment, partial payment, or late payment once the courts reopen.
Once the moratorium is lifted, the 1.5 million Louisiana residents who rent their homes will be at risk of homelessness if they have not paid April, May, or June rent on time, in full, or at all in the midst of the global health pandemic that has left even more people unemployed than have filed for unemployment.
Louisiana law, after all, allows landlords to accept late or partial payment for rent and still legally evict for non-payment.
Princeton’s Eviction Lab and Columbia University Professor Emily Benfer gave Louisiana a 0.38 out of five stars for its tenant-centered response to COVID-19 on their Housing Policy Scorecard.
In general, the state has some of the worst tenant protection laws in the United States, second only to Arkansas. Tenants are given five days’ notice of a landlord’s intent to evict. If they don’t vacate in that time, their landlord can then file with the court.
If (more like when) the court rules in favor of the landlord, the tenant has 24 hours to vacate. In the rare case that the court sides with the tenant, their credit report is still blemished by the filing – having a long-lasting impact on their ability to secure housing.
The history of landlord-tenant relationships is inextricable from that of race and class. And given the disproportionate impact that the novel coronavirus has had on Black and low-income people, it’s a history we need to address immediately – first, by incorporating measures that protect tenants from involuntary displacement in the long-term plan for recovery from COVID-19.
With the Union’s victory in the Civil War, more than 330,000 Louisianians of African descent – just under half of the state’s total population – were emancipated from slavery, free to navigate the war-torn geography of the reunited States with dominion, at long last, over their own bodies.
They faced many decisions, chief among them where to live.
For the Freed, housing had been an aspect of their captivity, a provision by enslavers to maximize the labor capacity of chattel that fueled Louisiana’s economy.
The enslaved were kept close to the land; houses; and – in New Orleans – bars, restaurants, and hotels on and in which they worked.
Emancipation would take the bodies of the enslaved out of commerce, and between that and the expenses and damages of war, Louisiana lost half of all assessed property, according to the 1866 De Bow’s Review.
Overnight, slaves became tenants.
How did the planter class that had amassed wealth and political power through the labor of captives take to contractual relationships with those who had been removed from their ownership by force of war?
Some planters cut their losses, abandoning hundreds of acres to parish tax sales. Others went bankrupt but coordinated the transference of their estates to relatives and friends.
The rural planters who remained and the urban merchants who provided their businesses’ sole lifeline through crop liens and blanket mortgages needed to shore up political and economic levees to tame the tide that threatened to subsume what was left of their ill-gotten wealth.
In 1879, as Reconstruction sighed its dying breath, Louisiana legislators convened to amend the state Constitution, establishing the legislative mechanics by which the wealth of former enslavers would be protected and cultivated at the expense of the working class.
As a result, the tax debts of delinquent planters were forgiven, property tax was reduced from 21 to six mills, and the capitol was moved away from New Orleans, the center of Black civic activity.
“Planters who weathered the storms of reconstruction made the new constitution a bulwark of their agricultural system,” wrote historian Roger Wallace Shuggs in 1937. And that agricultural system was only viable insofar as workers were kept vulnerable.
Eight years later, the largest mass eviction in the state’s history gave way to the largest lynching in the history of the nation, the Thibodaux Massacre.
In 1887, ten thousand sugar plantation workers staged a strike, demanding to be paid weekly instead of seasonally and in cash instead of company scrip. In response, planters organized a paramilitary group to enforce the eviction of all who refused to return to the fields.
The arrival of troops sent by Gov. Samuel Douglas McEnery freed the paramilitary group from the responsibility of overseeing the remaining workers so that they could, instead, seek out those who’d left, killing, wounding, and disappearing 300 of them.
The bodies of victims would be discovered in surrounding swamps for years after the massacre.
Contemporary landlord practice and the laws that govern it exist along this continuum of violent inequity.
For two months, tenants at the Lasalle Apartments have quarantined from homes with doors broken down by firefighters when the adjacent Hard Rock development collapsed. They rig the doors with padlocks for some modicum of safety.
Rodents roam the building, a pre-existing infestation worsened now that a daily buffet of litter in the tourist district is no longer being served.
Herman and Kittle Properties, Inc., the Indianapolis-based real estate conglomerate that owns the building and receives a tax credit for providing affordable housing, has done nothing to address the substandard living conditions – Louisiana law doesn’t require them to.
But they did send employees to remind tenants that the eviction courts would reopen May 18, since extended three weeks to June 5.
In Louisiana, where landlords can legally evict a tenant in retaliation for reporting substandard living conditions, tenant’s rights are virtually non-existent.
Under “normal” circumstances, low- and moderate-income renters are forced to choose between affordability and safety, both of which are increasingly scarce. But in the midst of a pandemic that has led to over 400,000 applications for unemployment insurance statewide, what’s to come of those renters for whom affordable housing is no longer affordable?
An extension of the moratorium on evictions – whether three weeks or two months, as many housing advocates are promoting – only delays mass eviction; it doesn’t decrease its likelihood.
If all our elected officials do is make it impossible to file for eviction for now, the impending mass eviction will have a far-reaching impact on mental, physical, and public health and education, employment, and economic outcomes.
Louisiana needs rent freeze and forgiveness measures informed by the timelines of national public health officials.
Louisiana needs government initiatives to support Louisiana-based “mom and pop” landlords who depend on income from long-term rentals for survival.
Without such protections for Louisiana residents, Gov. Edwards – like his predecessor Gov. McEnery – risks sanctioning a massacre. Dead or disappeared, we may be counting the bodies of pandemic eviction victims for years to come.