After listening to harrowing tales of children falling through termite-eaten floors and accounts of apartments with exposed wiring and black mold, leaking roofs, and rat and snake infestations, members of the New Orleans City Council said Wednesday they’re working on a plan to bring substandard rental housing in the city up to par.
Testimony about the problems came during a meeting of the council’s Community Development Committee, intended to be the first step in rallying support to revive a proposal to force landlords to register their properties with the city and submit to inspections.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she plans to introduce a registry ordinance this summer, more than a year after she first floated the idea.
Trina Lackey told the committee she lived for more than three years in a rental unit where water leaked from the ceiling, the walls and out of some appliances. That led to black mold, which in turn led to respiratory issues for herself and her son, she said.
The landlord refused to fix the problems, she said.
“He didn’t care one way or another. He just wanted to receive his rent,” Lackey said. “It was just terrible, and I don’t wish that upon anybody. Being a New Orleanian, loving it here, that was a nightmare.”
Della Wright, with the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies, said New Orleans is particularly prone to problems with rentals because much of its housing stock is old. Problems with such apartments, combined with the stress of moving to escape them, can affect the mental and physical health of residents, she said.
Councilman Jason Williams said such problems could contribute to the city’s high crime rate. “We have people who are working hard, sometimes more than one job, only to live in inhumane conditions,” he said.
The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has been pushing the issue for a year and a half. In December 2014, the group published a report that pointed to serious problems with the city’s rental housing stock.
Based on a 2011 Census Bureau survey, the report estimated that 2,350 units had lacked a working bathroom at some point in the previous three months, 1,200 lacked full kitchens and 1,900 did not have full plumbing.
About 6,850 units had water leaks from inside the building and 5,300 had leaks from the outside, with about 1,770 units estimated to have problems with mold, according to the report.
It is unclear how those figures, which came in the middle of the years of repairs and renovations that followed Hurricane Katrina, would still apply today.
However, housing rights advocates told stories from their own experience and that of their clients to illustrate the problem.
In one apartment building, a speaker said, tenants had to deal with 1 to 5 inches of water on the floor at all times because of leaks. Others told of black mold and mushrooms that grew after water leaked into apartments.
Negligent landlords were also a common theme. Several of the housing advocates’ stories involved landlords who refused to make repairs, leading to situations like one in which a tenant went days without power because the property’s owner refused to call Entergy to get the electricity turned back on.
Those issues could spur action, Councilman Jared Brossett said.
“I see a council up here that’s ready to respond and put the appropriate mechanisms in place,” he said.
Exactly what those mechanisms might be is still unclear, though.
The city’s 311 help line refers callers having problems with their landlords or apartments to legal aid groups; the city does not respond to such complaints itself.
Cantrell said she plans to revive a proposal she first floated early last year to require landlords to register their properties with the city, which would then inspect them and issue fines if there were problems.
That proposal quickly aroused opposition from landlords and homebuilders groups and never made it to a council vote.
Getting landlords to actually register their buildings, and finding the resources to enforce the rules, could prove challenging, though Cantrell said she’s working with groups representing landlords to get them on board with the plan.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.