Hurricane Ida led to illegal evictions throughout Louisiana. This bill aims to stop them.

When Hurricane Ida hit southeast Louisiana last August, Ben Toups, 39, and his wife hunkered down in their Houma apartment.

He didn’t evacuate until Ida because he’s been through hurricanes all his life in bayou parishes. But this Category 4 storm, with its 150 mph winds, was unlike any he had ever experienced.

“For four hours straight, imagine a thousand pressure washers exploding on your windows,” Toups said.

Unlike many other homes in Houma, her apartment, which was on higher ground and protected from the winds by nearby buildings, weathered the storm intact and with minimal damage.

Toups was therefore surprised when, eight days after the hurricane, he began receiving emails from ECI Group, an apartment rental agency that operates Houma Highlands, telling him and other residents to leave immediately.

Toups said he and other tenants were told they could terminate their leases without penalties, or they could continue to pay rent, but would have to remove their belongings and place them in the middle of the building and pack them.

Emails have become a roadblock. Fire alarms sounded constantly and electricity was rationed due to safety concerns over exposed wires, even when electricity was largely restored to Houma; Toups interpreted the two as management urging him to move.

In a prepared statement, ECI Group Vice President of Resident Experience Tim Johnson did not respond to questions about whether residents were evicted as described by Toups, and said that residents were allowed to collect their belongings “subject to there being health risks associated with entry. units” due to extensive wind and water damage.

He added that no evictions have been processed through the court system for any Houma Highlands residents due to Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Toups was not officially kicked out, but after a month he and his wife gathered what they could and left.

“We just decided to leave then and start a new life two hours north,” Toups said. “It was just a constant bombardment of pressure to get out.”

Ben Toups outside the Statehouse in March.

At the time, Toups didn’t realize he had a right to stay. Houma Highlands should take him to court in order to legally deport him.

Renters are particularly vulnerable in the weeks following a hurricane. Courts are often closed if they are damaged or if there is a power outage. Lawyers and attorneys say landlords who want their tenants out often bypass the formal eviction process, changing locks and removing tenants’ belongings, claiming tenants have abandoned their units when in reality they have evacuated. Unlike many other statesLouisiana law provides few repercussions for landlords who unlawfully evict their tenants.

A new Louisiana state bill, HB-160, could give renters more protections immediately after a federally declared disaster and introduce new penalties for landlords who unlawfully evict tenants. Toups gave moving testimony before a House committee in March when the bill was introduced.

“It’s very difficult when your parents have lost everything, your friends and family have lost everything,” Toups told the committee. “And you have to find a place to go when there’s no place to go.”

Since leaving Houma, Toups and his wife have traveled to Gonzales, New Orleans and even Lake Charles in search of an affordable apartment. On November 11, a month after leaving Houma Highlands, they moved into a second-floor unit in Denham Springs, paying nearly double what they had spent on rent in Houma.

What the bill would do

In Louisiana, a landlord must go through a court to evict a tenant unless they have reasonable grounds to believe a tenant has abandoned the property. Some typical examples of abandonment would be a tenant returning keys or removing furniture, said Hannah Adams, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a free civil legal aid agency serving 22 parishes. .

After hurricanes, landlords can quite easily take advantage of this abandonment provision, especially while tenants are evacuating, Adams said. Many southeast Louisiana residents left the area before Hurricane Ida last year and stayed away for prolonged power outages. Two or three weeks after Ida, when many finally returned home, SLLS received calls from tenants who returned home to find nothing in their apartments.

“All their furniture was gone, all their stuff was gone. The locks have been changed,” Adams said.

Some called their landlords to ask where their belongings were, and the landlords told them they assumed they had moved.

HB-160 would add a provision to existing law that would make termination of residential occupancy do not proof of abandonment for 30 days in parishes subject to a federal disaster declaration. This means that a landlord could not repossess a property claiming that a tenant abandoned it during this period.

The bill would also add a new penalty for landlords who unlawfully evict tenants by skipping the court eviction process: the landlord would have to pay the tenant either $500, or twice the amount of monthly rent, whichever is higher. higher.

This penalty is designed to deter landlords from breaking the law, said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, which contributed to the bill.

“The goal is to make sure people don’t have to find themselves in this situation in the first place,” he said. “Because once you’ve lost all your stuff and been locked out of your apartment, it takes a lot longer to recover.”

Kenneth Bordes, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans, said he was inundated with calls after Ida. He worked with a number of tenants at Saulet Apartments in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans who received eviction notices on their doorsteps in the days following Ida, who declared that their apartments were no longer habitable. Orleans Parish deportation courts have been closed at this moment.

Still, the apartment complex suffered little damage from Ida, Bordes said. The tenants told Bordes that the only damage to their apartments was there before the storm – such as plumbing leaks in the tenants’ bathrooms and kitchens – and that the Saulet had not made any repairs, even though the tenants had submitted maintenance requests.

“I just saw a company — out of state, at that — trying to take advantage of a storm,” Bordes said. “Because what happens after a storm, right?” Housing becomes more expensive because there may be less.

Businesses can charge new tenants more and file insurance claims to seek funds for existing maintenance issues, Bordes said.

Saulet Apartments did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

HB-160 could also reduce the financial cost to a tenant who has to seek emergency assistance if their landlord has broken the law. Generally, if a landlord unlawfully evicts a tenant, that tenant’s legal remedy would be to file an emergency restraining order or emergency injunction with the court. To do this, a tenant must post a “guarantee” – which means they have to pay money – in court.

Finding this money can be difficult for renters who have just experienced a hurricane.

“This is a time when tenants are particularly vulnerable, as they have even less funds lying around than they normally would, having spent most of their money evacuating,” Adams said.

HB-160 would waive this payment requirement for 30 days following a federal disaster declaration. It would also allow a tenant suing for wrongful eviction to collect attorney fees and court costs.

houma highlands

The Houma Highlands apartment complex in April 2022.

Why now

The bipartisan bill was drafted by Rep. Mandie Landry of New Orleans, along with a host of other lawmakers from the regions hardest hit by Ida: House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee of Houma, the representative Jerome “Zee” Zeringue of Houma, representative Beryl. Amedee de Houma, Rep. Bryan Fontenot of Thibodaux, and Rep. Joseph Orgeron de Larose. Lawmakers have received comments from housing advocates and the landlord lobby.

Testifying before the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure on March 29, Landry and Magee said the HB-160 is a direct response to problems they observed after Hurricane Ida.

“It was egregious to see people being kicked out of their homes at the worst possible time,” Landry said.

Still, some lawmakers have argued that the bill’s language is too narrow to address a wide range of landlord-renter concerns that arise after hurricanes.

Committee member Rep. Wilford Carter of Lake Charles said many of his constituents were unable to return home for at least two months after the city was shut down. battered by consecutive hurricanes in 2020.

“It’s good, but it’s not much,” he said of the HB-160.

HB-160 moved forward through its state House committee and passed by unanimous vote of the full House on April 6. He is now awaiting a Senate committee hearing.

Toups, from Houma, is now building a home for his family in Denham Springs and regaining a sense of normalcy. He hopes that no one will have to go through the experience he had.

“Something has to change,” Toups told House committee members in March. “I just believe owners should be held accountable for their actions.”

Disclaimer: New Orleans Public Radio reporter Carly Berlin previously worked for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center as an investigator with the Avodah Jewish Service Corps program, during of the 2018-2019 mandate.

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