Kijafa Brown made her Mardi Gras Indian debut in 2014. As Queen Ya Ya of the Washitaw Nation, Brown sewed a suit of bright white feathers with emerald pieces and silvery-jeweled centers. Two years later, in April, she appeared in Beyonce's Lemonade, circling a candle-lit table with her tambourine and dressed in her suit. Then Brown was forced to leave her home in Treme. Her landlord threatened her with eviction, and she left before the end of the month.
Brown moved into the one-bedroom apartment in 2010. There were leaks in the foyer, holes under the kitchen sink, mold and mildew in the cabinets, and two broken air-conditioning units. She suffered through it for the affordable rent: $450 a month. She waited 30 minutes for hot water to drip slowly into her bathtub. She was told it was an old house and the pipes were old. "Excuse after excuse," she says.
She asked her landlord to make repairs, which he rarely did, and the more she asked, the more defensive he became. A month before she was told she had to move, Brown wrote him a letter. "I love where I live," she wrote. "I don't plan on moving." She asked for help paying for the window units she replaced, whether through reducing her rent or paying her for their cost, and to install a lock on the fence — or reduce her rent so she could buy one — after a man broke into the backyard. Her landlord responded with a letter giving her until the end of May to move out and prorating her deposit if she waited that long. She left before the end of April.
"I was confused, I was mad," she says. "I hadn't done anything. I called like, 'Why am I getting evicted?' He said, 'You typed me this letter. It's time for you to go. You're not being appreciative.'"
"'You're not being appreciative,'" she says.
Brown believes her landlord didn't make repairs because he kept her rent relatively low — what kept her there for six years — and that was enough to avoid the cost of repairs.
"In the years I was there, I really didn't want to leave because it was so affordable," Brown says. "Going back and forth with it, I was fed up. I wanted to leave."
Brown isn't alone. More than half — 55 percent — of New Orleans residents rent their homes. Horror stories about lost security deposits and faulty plumbing are commonplace. More than three-quarters of homes on the private rental market need repairs, from leaks and missing or non-working smoke detectors to mold and pest infestations, according to the American Housing Survey and Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
Over the past several years, city officials have floated the idea of a rental registry — requiring landlords to register their property with the city and to pass a checklist of basic health and safety requirements — but the idea has never made its way past a rough draft without public input. Meanwhile, 40 percent of renters spend more than half their income on rent and utilities, which leaves little for the cost of repairs to the homes they don't own, or moving costs to get out of them, trapping low-income renters in a cycle of substandard housing.
On Jan. 18, the New Orleans City Council's Community Development Committee approved an ordinance — sponsored by LaToya Cantrell and Jason Williams — that requires most rental units to be registered with the city by the end of 2018. Under the ordinance, rental units also would have to meet a checklist of health and safety requirements before the property can be rented out. It will head to the full City Council for a vote.
"Any substandard property that exists, in any neighborhood, brings down that neighborhood. No one deserves that," Cantrell said outside City Hall on Jan. 18. "If we're going to improve the quality of life for all New Orleanians, we're going to have to improve the rental stock."
"Landlords should be held accountable for how they treat their tenants and their property," Brown says. "The things they fix and don't fix."
A blue tarp covers a corner of a roof of a shotgun house in a row of pastel-colored homes in Central City. Each of the front doors, several of them made of plywood sheets, comes up several inches short of its frame.
The homes, highlighted in a 2016 USA Today story about the city's substandard housing in low-income neighborhoods as the U.S. prepared for a Zika outbreak, didn't have air conditioning or proper drainage. Water from a bath- tub dumped out under the home, creating a breeding ground for mosquitos. When the tenants complained, the landlord asked them to leave, then rented the houses out again. One tenant, Shawanda Holmes, ended up moving in with her mother, who lived in a unit owned by the same landlord.
Holmes appeared at City Hall Jan. 18 in tears. "They don't see the people," she said. "They just see the cash."
The city and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) rebuilt less than 13 percent of the public housing units that were demolished after Hurricane Katrina, creating a long waiting list for housing assistance, while the private housing market becomes less and less affordable.
"People are paying a higher and higher percentage, they're paying more and more in rent, and housing quality is just not keeping pace," says Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, director of policy and communications with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "You'd think if you pay more, you'd get more, and that's just simply not the case. ... Families that are cash-strapped, they're putting all their money into rent, and there's very little left over."
Supporters of a citywide rental registry see it as a first step toward improving the rental stock by ensuring all rentals meet basic health and safety standards. "The kind of standard we're talking about is homes connected to sewage and water, connected to power, there aren't gaping holes in walls and windows and ceilings," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "The inspections affirm that every rental meets that minimal standard of habitability."
A citywide rental registry, as proposed, applies to most rental properties, with registration opening Jan. 1, 2018. Properties with 10 or more units must register by March 31, 2018; properties with five to nine units by Aug. 31, 2018; and one to four units by Dec. 31, 2018. Registration information — including the landlord's name and address — will enter a publicly accessible database. Landlords will pay a $60 registration fee, then $40 for annual renewals.
Then come the inspections. The city Department of Code Enforcement will mail an inspection notice to a landlord and tenant at least 14 days before a scheduled inspection. (Landlords can reschedule within 21 days of the scheduled inspection date.) Properties with one to four units will be inspected at a cost of $50 per unit, and all units on the property will be inspected. At least 50 percent of units on properties with five to 29 units will be inspected, at least 20 percent of units on properties with 30-49 units will be inspected, and at least 15 percent of units on properties with 50 or more units will be inspected. It will cost $40 per unit for properties with five to nine units, and $30 per unit for properties with 10 or more units. Owners must be present for inspections.
Here's the checklist: units must have a working smoke detector and fire alarm, working plumbing, a shower or bathtub, kitchen sink and flushable toilet, access to hot water, ability to ensure temperatures don't dip below 68 degrees, working gas appliances (if applicable), and no leaks in roofs, windows and doors or significant cracks or holes, and no signs of rodents or infestation.
If the unit passes inspection, it receives a Certificate of Compliance. Under the proposed law, tenants can't live at the property if it doesn't have that certificate. Properties in violation of the ordinance could be subject to liens. If the inspection finds unnamed "immediate hazards," the unit has to be vacated within 30 days.
Properties that pass a first inspection don't have to be inspected for another three years. Properties that fail must be inspected two years later. Properties that fail two consecutive inspections must be inspected every six months the first year and annually for the next three years. Landlords can appeal failed inspections.
Averaging small and large rental operators, Gerhart-Hambrick estimates the fees amount to an average of $3 per apartment each month. "While we do expect some landlords to pass the cost on to tenants, at $3 a month, we feel it's worth peace of mind," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "The kind of deferred maintenance we see, there's not a lot of incentive to reinvest in your property if you know you can rent it out again anyway. Now there's some incentive to do so."
In a letter sent to the City Council, a group of 16 property managers, developers and landlords said a rental registry would violate landlords' and renters' Fourth Amendment rights and that the current complaint-based system of code enforcement "effectively, efficiently and economically addresses the reported problem(s) and provides an effective and expeditious resolution." It also accuses proponents of creating a false narrative using baseless figures that don't represent the realities of most renters, and that registry proponents are "exploiting a few problems" to "fabricate a nonexistent crisis that reeks of demagoguery."
"It is completely illogical to define all landlords by the actions or omissions of a few and is wrong to cite a limited number of problems as proof of a systemic breakdown in the rental industry," the letter reads. It also warns that a registry would "destroy affordable housing and drive rents through the roof."
" It is completely illogical to define all landlords by the actions or omissions of a few. "
- Sixteen landlords and developers in a letter to the city council
Among its signatories are Bob Chopin of Uptown Realty Management and developer Neal Morris of Redmellon. At the Jan. 18 hearing, Morris said the cost of the program could be much larger than the registration fees it collects.
Inspections likely will be performed by the California-based company NMA Inspections, which the city hired last year following a request for proposals that attracted only three bids. NMA won. The proposed program, which proponents say will be revenue neutral, would be funded by fines and fees. Opponents of the idea say the cost of those fines and fees would be passed on to renters — essentially paying for a program designed to protect them.
Currently, renters with property issues can report them to Code Enforcement via 3-1-1 — a system housing advocates say doesn't respond well to renters. The proposed ordinance aims to end reliance on a complaint-driven system and prevent complaints from ever happening. Currently, if Code Enforcement responds — and the landlord responds — it's often at the expense of the tenant.
"The tenant calls the city, the city calls the landlord, the landlord asks the tenant to leave," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "This isn't all landlords. I think there's a market of slumlords operating throughout the city, and I think that's pretty well established, and there certainly are landlords doing everything they can to reinvest in their property, and they face unfair competition from slumlords."
Domingo Correa, a landlord with 38 units, told the City Council that Code Enforcement and the city's Department of Safety and Permits should be held responsible for the city's substandard housing. Opponents say the registry ultimately punishes responsible landlords through costly inspections rather than going after slumlords.
Home Builders Association President Jon Luther urged the City Council to spend more time drafting the ordinance. Proponents of the rental registry say renters don't have time to wait, particularly low-income people without money to move and people on fixed incomes, as well as disabled people and seniors "who can't just pick up and move and do the free market solution every time there's a repair issue," says Kevin Hurstell, program director of the Advocacy Center's Housing Assistance Plus Program. "If [opponents] are saying the costs of repairs will increase peoples' rent, that should already be a part of the rent. That's what they're paying for."
"Most landlords want to do, and are doing, the right thing," Williams said at a press conference Jan. 18. "The ones who are doing the right thing, they deal with the unfair advantage of slum landlords who charge the exact same price for a deplorable, unhealthy unit."
The program also will make funds available through publicly financed, low-cost, low-interest loans for landlords who want to make repairs but don't have access to capital. ("This is not about trying to be a money grab," Cantrell said. "This is about those registration fees and inspection fees being pumped right back into ensuring we have quality housing.")
"If you're not able to connect your city sewage and water and you're not able to have and run electricity, and you're not able to meet these very, very, very basic health and safety standards, and you can't do that in an 18-month period — you're also going to have access to funds so we can help bring people into compliance," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "If you can't afford a working smoke detector, maybe you should get out of the landlord business."
Sharika Evans' landlord wouldn't give her receipts for the rent she paid weekly in cash. She went over budget paying for mouse traps and pest control after her landlord ignored her requests for help, and she was stuck with increasing rental penalty fees she couldn't keep up with until she was forced to move out.
Evans was just one renter who received help from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), which provides legal aid to low-income people. The organization assisted more than 26,000 people throughout the state in 2015. Over the last year, just one attorney at SLLS in New Orleans has handled 151 rental habitability cases and dozens of other complaints from renters dealing with mold, lack of electricity or water service, collapsed ceilings and floors, poor plumbing and rodents.
"People are looking for a swift solution to an urgent crisis," SLLS Director Laura Tuggle told the City Council.
State law prevents renters from withholding rent, but renters can "repair and deduct" by making repairs themselves and asking for the cost to come out of their rent.
"If the landlord refuses to make repairs, you don't really have a lot of options," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "You can basically move out. If families are spending all their income on rent, they don't have money left over to make repairs, and they also don't have money left over to move."
Without clear policies for tenant protections, the city's judicial branch serves as the de facto driver of housing policy. Housing advocates supporting the rental registry say it will help give the courts some guidance in those cases; the ordinance allows tenants to report issues and unresponsive landlords to Code Enforcement without fear of retaliation, including the unlawful termination of a lease, a decrease in services, lawsuits or non-renewal of a lease.
"The judicial branch is seeing so little of what's actually happening out there," says Davida Finger, who runs the Community Justice section at the law clinic at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. "It takes so much for anyone to get to court, let alone anyone who doesn't have a network of lawyers to rely on."
Finger estimates the clinic's housing cases, part of an overwhelming docket of such cases, represent only a fraction of what's out there. "What we see is the tiniest little drop in a huge mountain of cases that never get heard," she says. "By the time we get one of these cases to court, it feels like a modern-day miracle."
Many clinic clients get help with security deposit theft, cases where a tenant did everything required under the lease but still didn't get the deposit back. "Here, if your security deposit is $1,000, that's stolen and you're able to get a lawyer and get to court — so we're talking six to eight months at this point — and you have an awesome case, and you win your case, you know what you get back? You get back $1,000.
"I try to get excited with my clients, of course, because a win is a win," Finger says. "A thousand dollars to someone whose annual income is $12,000 is a lot of money. But it feels like a pretty hollow victory in the end."
Finger sees the ordinance as a public health issue, one that echoes throughout a community — from the home, to school, to the workplace — particularly among low-income families living entire lives in substandard housing. "It's a spiral effect. We wonder why we have persistent poverty. But we know so much about specific markers that could change outcomes," she says. "This is a community-based approach. This is saying we want to have healthy homes in the community and we're not going to punt it to judges for the few cases that trickle in there, and we're not going to rely on lawyers to take on more pro bono work. That's not a system that's viable. We're going to figure this out on the front end for once."
"The argument against improving conditions for tenants, who are the majority of New Orleanians, has always been, 'We can't do it perfectly, so we won't do it at all.' We're talking about tens of thousands of families, we're talking about 40,000 children, who live in rentals citywide," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "The health and safety of the city depends on it."
The debate over the ordinance likely will continue over the coming weeks as amendments are drawn up before it heads to the full City Council for a vote — but members of the City Council still have unanswered questions about its scope, legality and how it could affect rent prices. At-Large Councilwoman Stacy Head, along with rental registry supporters and opponents, also questioned why the ordinance exempts short-term rentals and city- and government-owned properties. (Also exempt: units in hospitals and care facilities and campus housing.) After years of debate over the controversial (and then-illegal) practice of renting homes through Airbnb, many question why short-term rentals are excluded.
"If one of the goals is to have accurate and publicly available database, why are any properties not subjected to at least the application form for the registry so they can at least be a part of registry?" Head said.
Andreanecia Morris, director of Housing NOLA, also asked why certain properties would be held to a different standard and said the City Council should detail what properties will be exempt, and why.
The ordinance also doesn't outline what tenants will do if their unit doesn't pass inspection and they're forced to vacate, or how the city will enforce the measure against landlords who refuse to comply.
Cantrell and Williams assured members of the Council's Community Development Committee that the ordinance is a starting point and will be amended.
"The bottom line is, our citizens deserve better," Cantrell said. "Housing that doesn't meet quality standards im- pacts everybody."
After she was forced to leave her home in Treme, Brown lived with family and members of her Washitaw tribe. She didn't want to move out of New Orleans and return to Baton Rouge, where she grew up. "That is so stressful, trying to find a place that's close to your job in the price range you're looking for," she says. After several months, she found an apartment near Freret Street in Uptown. Though she misses her old neighborhood and her home, where she'd spend all night sitting at her kitchen table sewing her suit, she's relieved she's not going back.
"Nobody wants to be treated like that," she says. "Nobody."