Threatened New Orleans Tenants Fight Back Against Evictions Scourge

Jessica Azulay
Date Published: 
November 23, 2005
As landlords in the Crescent City area file eviction notices at a rate of some 100 a day, community organizers and local renters are waging a two-front battle to resist homelessness.

New Orleans; Nov. 23, 2005 – Having survived Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians who live in rented housing face a new threat: Landlords, tempted by rising rents and crunched by monetary losses from the storm, are engaged in a massive campaign to evict thousands of residents. Some groups, however, are pushing back, by filing challenges to the eviction system itself or by organizing tenants to fight their expulsions through protest and public pressure.

While landlord associations claim their members are largely evicting people who have abandoned their apartments or refused to pay rent, many tenants being pushed out are living in their apartments, trying to pay rent or are at least in touch with their landlords.

Some, according to renters’ advocates, are victims of extra-legal evictions, in which landlords simply throw their belongings out on the street without adhering to legal requirements. Others have faced eviction without even knowing it, as Louisiana law allows constables to tack eviction notices on apartment doors. In post-Katrina New Orleans, this practice denies evacuees scattered throughout the United States any chance of knowing that their residence is being challenged.

According to clerks for the two functioning eviction courts in the New Orleans area, there are more than 100 cases of landlords attempting to evict tenants filed each day since October 25, when the governor’s moratorium on evictions was lifted. In the majority of cases, according to Marty Broussard, clerk for Second City Court, judges find for the landlords.

Authorities can no longer merely tack eviction notices to tenants’ doors.

Yesterday, however, several evicted tenants and organizations that work with low-income New Orleanians won a legal battle against the practice of tacking eviction orders to doors as the only form of notification when a lawsuit was settled in their favor.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of people like Brenda Brooks, a displaced New Orleans resident who returned to check on her apartment in early October after evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. She said her apartment was unharmed by the storm, though other units in the building had sustained damage.

According to the lawsuit, Brooks contacted the realtor who told her that there was nothing she needed to do to retain her residence. She said she provided the office with her temporary address and cell-phone number. When Brooks’s landlords decided to evict her, constables simply tacked a notice to her door. Brooks said she was never contacted in any other way. She did not return to her apartment in time to see the notice before the court date.

Though the lawsuit settlement will not help Brooks regain her apartment, it will provide people currently in her situation with a better notification system and more time to challenge their evictions in court if they choose to fight.

According to the settlement, which was reached yesterday afternoon, authorities can no longer merely tack eviction notices to tenants’ doors. They must now provide the names to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which must in turn give authorities the latest contact information for the tenants. The settlement then assures that hearings will be scheduled no sooner than 45 days after eviction notices are mailed to tenants.

A small group of grassroots organizers is taking another, more radical approach to defend tenants’ homes.

"We have not achieved a retroactive victory for all those who have been locked out and kicked out already," said Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney who represented the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund in the lawsuit. "They acted quickly, and they acted when we were not looking, but we have come to the table and stopped them today."

Muhammad attributed the defendants’ willingness to negotiate and settle on the pressure the government has felt since the Hurricane Katrina relief debacle.

"This is the people’s victory," he said. "This is a victory for every survivor, every displaced person who is raising up Cain about their victimization by government entities. We think the pressure put on FEMA and government entities is what is driving this victory today."

Aside from the legal battle to stop evictions, a small group of grassroots organizers is taking another, more radical approach to defend tenants’ homes. They employ a tactic called "direct-action casework," by which they mobilize around specific incidents and fight through protest, community organizing, media exposure and other forms of public pressure.

Jeremy Prickett is an organizer from California who is coordinating an anti-eviction campaign affiliated with the New Orleans-based grassroots relief organization Common Ground Collective. Prickett said his team has already stopped some illegal evictions in which landlords, without court orders, simply began emptying apartments and changing locks while tenants were absent.

When someone notifies them that an eviction is in progress, the activists go to the building with several people and confront the landlord. While Prickett sees the recent court victory as a positive step, he worries that extrajudicial evictions will now accelerate.

In response, he said, organizers are working faster to put a network in place so that people can activate a phone tree and call activists and community members to evictions-in-progress as rapidly as possible.

"We try to apply the fight-to-win method to actually win victories, stop evictions, get people their security deposits back… and show a way of fighting the attacks of big business that is effective," Prickett explained. "There’s sort of a hopelessness that has to be cut across by getting results."

One case that Prickett and others have been organizing around is the attempted mass-eviction of the tenants of the Louisbourg Square Apartments in Terrytown, across the river from downtown New Orleans.

Sonia Kahn, an immigrant from Guatemala and US citizen, has been living in the Louisburg Square Apartments for six years. A house cleaner and mother of five, Kahn returned from evacuation on September 23 to find her apartment somewhat moldy but livable. She cleaned it up and has been residing there ever since, despite repeated attempts by the apartment managers to expel her and her fellow tenants.

According to Kahn’s and other tenants’ accounts – a Louisbourg Square manager refused to comment and hung up on The NewStandard – residents had tried several times to pay their rent when they returned from evacuation. But the managers were not around for a couple of weeks, and when they returned, they allegedly refused to accept payment and instead told tenants they had to leave their apartments by October 25.

Though several tenants succumbed to intimidation by the managers and left even before October 25, Kahn and several others stayed, supported by the Common Ground anti-eviction activists who always came any time they were called.

The organizers found the tenants an attorney who would represent them pro bono, and they also garnered media attention for the eviction hearing. On November 2, Justice of the Peace Vernon Wilty ruled that the managers had to accept rent payments and that, if tenants paid, they could stay.

But since that court victory, the tenants say the building managers continue to make life difficult for them with the help of police. They have closed the laundry rooms and refused to clean up a pile of trash that blocks the mail from being delivered. Police officers have told tenants that if they do not like their situation, they should leave – a proposition later confirmed to TNS by Deputy T. Wade of the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office. Police have reportedly also threatened anti-eviction organizers visiting the tenants.

Last Tuesday, when the power went out in some of the apartments, resident Bertha Dugas called to report the outage to the managers and said she was told that she should leave her apartment.

Dugas said, "I went by [the manager’s office] and her old man said, ‘I told you, you had to get out. We don’t have no maintenance. We can’t fix nothin’.’" 

"If I had a place to go," she said, "I’d be out of here a long time ago. I’m waiting for FEMA to give me a trailer so I can get out of here."

Now, a fresh round of eviction notices have been tacked to the doors at Louisbourg Square Apartments. While the previous eviction attempt was for "not paying rent" – which tenants fought in court because they had tried to pay it – now they have been served notices to vacate, with no court date. Under Louisiana law, the landlords can terminate the tenants’ residency with notice because they have month-to-month leases.

"That leaves public action as our only tactic, and the owners live in New England and have been subject to public pressure before," said Prickett, whose team researched the owners of the apartment complex.

The Boston Angry Tenants Union named Leonard Samia, one of the owners on the deed, Scumbag Landlord of the Month in 2003.

Though Prickett and the tenants know their battle will be uphill, they are still vowing to fight.

Muhammad, the lawyer, said that Louisiana laws are so pro-landlord that even when people have the opportunity to respond in court to eviction orders, they will often lose. But he hopes that the room created by the recent settlement and other anti-eviction organizing efforts will give people time to organize themselves to fight to keep their homes.

"They can do it through the legislature," he said. "They can do it through the media. They can do it through civil disobedience. They can shut down the city."