While the lift of Covid-19 restrictions has made it seem like life is “back to normal,” this is not the reality for many people in Louisiana who are facing evictions, which has only been exacerbated the past two years by the pandemic and wave of devastating hurricanes. And unfortunately, the future is looking grim: an estimated 52% of people in Louisiana who are behind on their rental payments are likely or very likely to face eviction within the next two months, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent weekly Household Pulse data.
Neither the federal government nor the states track eviction rates, but poverty and evictions are strongly correlated. According to data collected in 2020, 40% of people in Louisiana were found to be below federal poverty line. Even prior to the pandemic, Louisiana was no stranger to poverty; and with the recession in full swing, many locals are still struggling.
The effect of an eviction goes far beyond a landlord kicking a tenant out of their property. Not only do tenants lose a place to lay their head, but they may lose their belongings, their job, and even their children. So, it should come as no surprise that tenants with evictions looming experience stress, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, evictions appear on a tenant’s record, which encourages landlords to routinely reject their applications and inadvertently displace the recently evicted into low-income areas that cannot provide necessary resources.
In response to the looming eviction crisis in March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which contained a 120-day eviction moratorium prohibiting landlords from initiating eviction proceedings against their tenants for non-payment. However, its reach was limited, only applying to tenants living on federally-supported properties and ending its protections following July.
Two months later, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) moved quickly and passed a similar but notably more expansive eviction moratorium. In contrast to Congress’s eviction moratorium, the CDC moratorium covered all properties in the United States, even imposing criminal penalties on violators. The CDC moratorium was extended multiple times until it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court late August. Holding the CDC moratorium was an overreach of agency power, the Court explained the power to extend the moratorium further lies with Congress, who had already declined to extend the moratorium. With the end of the federally imposed prohibition on evictions, struggling tenants were again vulnerable to evictions.
In a bittersweet series of events, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana’s coast on August 29, coincidentally the same day Katrina hit the shores of Louisiana in 2005. In response, Governor John Bel Edwards signed an emergency order extending the prohibition on evictions through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program until September 24. For a short period of time, Louisiana tenants were again protected from being thrown out of their homes.
Throughout this back and forth, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a low-income legal service provider covering the southeast region of Louisiana, has been there for the ride. SLLS places a special focus on their eviction projects, even launching an 18-month Eviction Diversion Project this summer that is aimed to prevent evictions. And for those cases where evictions proceedings have already been initiated, SLLS also provides legal services.
To assist tenants already in the throes of an eviction, SLLS has created training manuals and visual aids for volunteer attorneys who may not normally take eviction cases. Additionally, SLLS participates in outreach and collaborates with other organizations, like the Louisiana State Bar Association (LSBA) and the Baton Rouge Bar Association (BRBA). Most recently, SLLS helped put together a training webinar for that covered evictions in Louisiana.
Hailey Manint, a recent LSU Law graduate, is currently volunteering with SLLS, providing pro bono services for their evictions projects. To help guide volunteer attorneys who take on eviction cases, she created an Eviction Manual, which brought together procedural and defense information on eviction in Louisiana.
Recalling her work with SLLS on evictions, Hailey noticed a disturbing trend: “A lot of landlords will try to evict their tenants without going to court, which is completely illegal. So, they’ll turn their lights off, put a notice on their door that is not from a court, and say, ‘You’re out.’” Hailey expounded: “This is why SLLS’s work is so important and doing outreach, so people know that they do have legal recourse.”
SLLS is partnering with LSU Law’s Public Interest Law Society (PILS), an organization aimed at fostering a culture of service by providing pro bono and community service opportunities for law students. SLLS is currently looking for two to three interested 2L or 3L LSU law students who are expected to commit to about ten hours of pro bono work per week until the end of the semester. Students will be involved in a variety of pro bono work: interviewing clients, legal research, assisting attorneys in the eviction process, etc. Interested students should reach out to the PILS Pro Bono Chair, Madeline Meyer, by email at email@example.com.