Housing advocates in Lafayette are concerned the ending of the eviction moratoriums in Louisiana and nationwide could lead to problems local officials “are not prepared to deal with,” one advocate said.
A statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures following the coronavirus shutdown was set to expire Friday until Gov. John Bel Edwards extended it late Thursday to June 15, while the federal moratorium — which covers any dwelling that receives federal assistance or a dwelling that has a federal mortgage — is set to expire next month. The $600 a week federal unemployment assistance program that ends in July is also expected to accelerate the issue.
On Tuesday, the Louisiana Association of Affordable Housing Providers and Housing Louisiana sent a letter to the Governor’s Office to request additional funding for rental assistance for the remainder of the year. In Acadiana, nearly $55 million is needed to address rental assistance needs this year and another $125 million for next year, data shows.
The problem will be worse when the federal moratorium is lifted, said Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing.
“I’m certainly concerned and think it’s something our community is not prepared to deal with,” she said. “You’re looking at consequences like increased homelessness and people sleeping in cars. Our neighbors you didn’t know were struggling much realize they are out of options. I think our community has not seen something like that before and are not ready for it.”
Housing advocates sent the governor the letter following surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies that paint a discouraging picture of the state of housing in Louisiana and nationwide.
The most recent Census data indicates 31.9% of the state’s population were housing insecure, meaning they either missed last month’s mortgage or rent payment or are not confident they can pay next month, and more than half has reported some loss of employment income.
In Louisiana, as many as 45% of renters spend more than 35% of their income on housing costs, Rachal said. Some renters spend as much as 50% on housing.
In Lafayette Parish, where the unemployment rate swelled to 13.2% in April, the soonest evictions can be filed is the middle of next week if the moratorium is not extended before then, said Judge Douglas Saloom, of Lafayette City Court, which handles evictions.
The court handles about 200 cases a month during normal circumstances, he noted. The court has 20 cases that were filed prior to the shutdown and another 30 cases that are pending, but many landlords may be choosing not to file due to the moratoriums, including federal ones under the CARES Act, which expires July 25.
Those evictions, Saloom noted, will resume in either late August or early September if nothing changes.
“That’s going to be a massive, massive number,” he said. “That’s when all the tenants who have not paid rent or have not worked out an agreement with their landlord are going to have to come and face an eviction hearing. We’ve been encouraging landlords and tenants to work out an agreement to allow the tenants to stay on the property but keeps them on a schedule.
“We have no idea how many are out there. We’re getting a lot of calls but not a lot of numbers.”
Data from other agencies indicate housing has become a significant concern in Lafayette Parish. Data from Lafayette Consolidated Government last month indicated 925 residents reached out to the 211 help line with questions about housing and shelter since March 11 with calls increasing after April 15.
Lafayette Utility Services reported in early May it had 5,000 business and residential customers who were so far behind on their payments that, under normal circumstances, their services would have been disconnected.
At Catholic Charities of Acadiana, which gives money to families facing evictions or utility disconnects, the funding dedicated to those causes won’t be near enough to meet the demand, communications coordinator Ben Broussard said.
The agency is calling on people to contribute to the fund.
“We are responding to a disaster,” Broussard said. “We are going to need money to help people stay in their homes. It’s going to be insurmountable. So many of us have family supports and safety nets. But when you don’t have those things and have nowhere to turn, you’re in a bind. And you need real assistance.”
Property owners and tenants should have begun dialogue about a payment plan if the tenant has trouble paying rent, Saloom said. Phil Devey, owner of Frontline Real Estate Group, which owns several rental properties in Lafayette, said his company notified tenants they can set up a payment plan if they’re experiencing a job loss or other financial hardships due to COVID-19.
Most landlords in Lafayette, he said, are taking the same approach, and lenders are taking the same approach with the property owners.
“When there’s been conversation and dialogue, there’s been help,” Devey said. “The worst thing a tenant can do is cut communications. At that point, you’re taking the position that you’re not going to do anything to pay your rent. That’s not the right approach. We’re all in this mess together, and we’ve all got to get out of it together.”
Property owners, too, must be aware of the process, particularly if their property falls under the CARES Act moratorium. Any property connected to a federally backed mortgage would qualify, and the court is requiring an affidavit from property owners certifying that their property does not qualify, Saloom said.
The federal moratorium, he noted, could also be extended.
“They really need to look at the CARES Act,” Saloom said. “If they evict somebody wrongfully, it opens up more trouble for them than the rent they are losing. We are preaching be cautious, be patient and don’t shoot the messenger.”
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