Author’s Note: In February, I published a piece about the changing demographics of New Orleans, which you can read here. This is a follow-up.
It’s no secret that New Orleans, like many urban centers in the U.S., is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Wages in the city have remained stagnant, while housing prices have skyrocketed. It seems like everywhere you look there is a new development of luxury condos going up – while the number of affordable units dwindles.
Earlier this year, Big Easy Magazine published a report showing that New Orleans’ black residents are being pushed out of their neighborhoods, and the city as a whole. But are rising rents truly to blame, or is this a power play by developers and landlords?
New Orleans’ eviction rates are astounding
In March, the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI) together with Professor Davida Finger of the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Law Clinic published a study titled “New Orleans Eviction Geography: Results of an Increasingly Precarious Housing Market.”
What they found was that from January 2015 to June 2018, an estimated 24,000 residents were displaced due to court-ordered evictions. In fact, one out of every 19 households faced a court-ordered eviction in 2017 – that doesn’t include those households who were informally evicted, or who experienced more than one eviction that year.
Evictions disproportionately affect the Black community
The highest eviction rates in the city occurred in neighborhoods that are predominantly Black. In the Little Woods neighborhood of New Orleans East, for example, the eviction rate was 10.4 percent – nearly double the citywide rate of 5.2 percent, and nearly quadruple the national average of 2.8 percent.
According to the JPNSI study, evictions in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and in those neighborhoods that were historically redlined and therefore faced disinvestment were higher than elsewhere in the city. One in four renter households in predominantly Black neighborhoods faced court-ordered evictions between 2015 and 2017.
Affordability is an issue
It would be disingenuous to say that all of these evictions were nefarious, or had the sole intention of pushing residents out of their homes. Affordability is a problem. The National Low Income Housing Coalition published a report earlier this year titled “Out of Reach.” What they found was that in New Orleans, to afford a “modest” two-bedroom rental at the fair market rate of $1,008 per month, a household needs to earn a minimum of $40,320. In New Orleans, the average household income in 2016 was only $38,621 per year – but there are large disparities in how that income is distributed. Black households in New Orleans earn only $29,296 per year – and renters in general (black or white) earn an average of only $24,000 per year.
In comparison, Latinx households earn an average of $35,638 per year, and white households earn an average of $65,689 per year.
As noted by The Data Center in their report “Rigging the Real Estate Market”:
“And yet, as recently as early 2018, our City government has failed to require developers to include any affordable housing units in an up-and-coming neighborhood on high ground… At worst, these practices appear bent on repeating or building on segregationist policies that facilitate wealth creation for whites and deny health, wealth, and opportunity to blacks. At best, they postpone action that is urgently needed to address re-segregation and isolation of low-income renters and stark racial wealth inequality.”
Eviction as a power play
Newly published research from University of Hawai’i at Manoa professor Philip Garboden and co-author Eva Rosen found that in many cases, landlords who file for eviction aren’t necessarily seeking to put tenants out of their homes. Instead, it’s become just one of the tools used to shift the power dynamic between them and their renters more in their favor.
Unlike other states, Louisiana law is skewed drastically in favor of landlords already. Renters cannot withhold rent, even in the event that a home is or becomes uninhabitable. Landlords in New Orleans and across the state can use this to their advantage, failing to do needed repairs, and threatening renters with eviction should they complain. According to the JPNI report, tens of thousands of New Orleans rental properties fell below basic habitability standards in 2015. Units had water leaks, pest infestations, electrical hazards and other issues affecting the health and safety of renters – including lack of heat or air conditioning. But in court, late or withheld rent takes precedence over lack of repairs or substandard living conditions.
The post-Katrina demolition of public housing only exacerbates this power play. In public housing, renters had a right to pre-eviction administrative grievance processes to delay or even stop an eviction. However, with the shift to a voucher-based subsidy system, Section 8 renters rent from private landlords and therefore lose that legal protection. In addition, though the law caps the amount of rent that Section 8 renters can be charged in the first year at 40 percent of their adjusted income, landlords can raise the rent above that in following years – and there is no cap.
The not-so-hidden costs of eviction
The process of eviction is expensive, particularly for renters. In addition to the costs of missing work to attend court, transportation to and from the court, etc., once the eviction is filed, things really get expensive. Unpaid rent is often sent to a collection agency, which adds on processing fees. Screening companies place renters who have a court-ordered eviction on “do not rent” lists, making accessing housing at all – much less affordable housing – increasingly difficult. Renters who are evicted forfeit their security deposit, leaving them with little to put towards finding a new place to live. If they receive subsidized housing benefits, the loss of that security deposit often results in the loss of their housing voucher.
The social costs are also clear. As stated in the Big Easy Magazine piece “Pushed Out: The Changing Demographics of New Orleans,” there were 91,274 fewer Black residents in New Orleans in 2017 than there were in 2000. As said by City Councilmember Kristen Palmer:
“People have been consistently pushed out… If we lose our people and our culture, we lose our city.”
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor whose work has been featured in publications such as The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_