Arielle Butler laughed as she watched her 3-year-old daughter wind around the driveway of their Zachary home in a battery-powered toy car while her 4-year-old son kicked a soccer ball in the yard nearby.
She knows how lucky her family is to be there after the 45 days they spent homeless, living in a hotel room late last year.
“I'm glad we can smile about it when there’s so many that may not be smiling, so that’s when the tears start coming,” said Butler, 32. “I know when I see furniture out on the street, when I see people’s families in the Walmart parking lot looking for money, that was pretty much me. The awareness is so much greater now. We have to be voices and start speaking out and not be embarrassed about getting evicted.”
When the coronavirus began spreading in Louisiana last March, Butler lived in a home she rented in Zachary with her two children and her mother, father, brother and sister. When she began to lose hours from her job with a medical supplies company and her second job as a seasonal worker with a maintenance company, she signed up for unemployment.
Between the $600 federal unemployment checks funded by Congress’ second coronavirus relief bill and odd jobs Butler and her mother, Donna Butler, were able to find, the family paid their bills and rent through the summer.
The enhanced unemployment benefit ran dry in July following months of inaction by Congress.
Butler’s family was left scrambling to make ends meet and fell two months' behind on rent in October.
By November, Butler was in front of a judge at a Zachary eviction court. She desperately tried to call attention to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions in the U.S., but despite meeting the requirements for protection under the order, she had failed to document her eligibility and was evicted.
Members of the Louisiana House Committee on Judiciary listened with rapt attention at a Wednesday hearing as Butler recounted her desperation when she returned home and was given 15 minutes to leave.
Her 3-year-old, Ali, was in bed recovering from a surgery two days prior. Her 4-year-old, Aiden, has autism and was watching TV. Her brother, a sophomore at Zachary High School, was in the middle of his virtual classes.
“How would you feel if you had 15 minutes to get everything you could get at one time?” she asked the legislators. “Everything you’ve worked for. Everything you’ve made. All the security you have for your family. I didn’t even have the time to explain to them what was going on.”
With the help of neighbors, the family gathered their belongings that had been stuffed into black trash bags and moved them to a storage unit, Butler said. A police officer slipped Donna Butler $100 as they left the home.
Butler’s family then began its 45-day stay in area hotels. They had two rooms at first, but then all seven people moved into a single room at Homewood Suites in Baton Rouge to save money.
The eviction on Butler’s record made it nearly impossible for the family to find a new landlord that would allow them to live on their property, Butler told the legislators.
“That was the hardest time of my life,” Butler said. “We had no one to turn to. I’m a hard working single mother. I would do anything for my kids, but I could not save them from this.”
Wednesday’s hearing centered around the long-term effects of eviction records for the many Louisianans evicted amid the pandemic. The state has not implemented any protections against eviction.
A parade of experts followed Butler’s testimony to present studies about the increase of renters in the state struggling to pay their bills since the coronavirus began spreading last year and how an eviction record can bar people from signing a lease with a new landlord.
The CDC moratorium on evictions was extended this month through March, but without state protections, far too many Louisianans like Butler fall through the cracks and are left with a permanent record of their eviction, said Maxwell Ciardullo, the director of policy and communications for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center
Other states have tried to address this problem by sealing cases that don’t result in conviction and creating tighter regulations for credit reporting agencies and tenant screening companies to ensure accuracy in their reports, Ciardullo said.
“We want to work toward a solution that will ensure these records won’t follow people for seven years and blacklist them from housing and employment,” Ciardullo said.
President Joe Biden’s administration is attempting to alleviate some of the housing pain, asking Congress for an unspecified amount of money for legal aid, an extension on the eviction moratorium through Sept. 30 and $30 billion in rental assistance in addition to the $25 billion approved in the December stimulus package.
James Rather, an attorney with the Apartment Association of Louisiana, called Butler’s experience “unacceptable” and said property owners need to be given direct aid from the government, as well.
“Since March, landlords have been asked to subsidize housing in this country,” Rather said. “Through eviction moratoriums by force of law, landlords have been forced to give away rent for free.”
Rather argued against sealing eviction records but said work could be done with credit reporting agencies and tenant screening companies to ensure the records’ accuracy.
Butler, who was able to find a new home for her family with cheaper rent and a landlord willing to overlook her eviction, said she is “angry” at all levels of the government for “failing to come together for the good of the country.”
Wednesday’s hearing was a good first step to talk about solutions that will “work for everyone,” she added.
“I want my children to grow up knowing that the system does work,” Butler said. “My mom has taught that, my dad has taught that, but it hurts to see it fall apart because we can’t come together on dollars and cents.”