NEW ORLEANS—If homeowners are having a hard time coming back to New Orleans because of the lack of infrastructure, from potable water to public schools, the city’s renters have it worse: They have virtually no legal claim on their old apartments. The hurricane and floods destroyed or caused major damage to more than half the city’s 188,000 homes and apartments, according to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development figures.
Of its 100,000 rental units, slightly more than half suffered major damage and more than one-third were destroyed. With no rent control, New Orleans’ tenants have virtually no rights.
In 1977, local activists got a rent-control initiative on the city ballot, but a state court blocked the vote on the grounds that the proposed law would be an unconstitutional intrusion on private landlord-tenant transactions. Most tenants go on month-to-month tenancies after their initial lease expires, so it is easy for landlords to get them out, explains Soleil Rodrigue, an anti-eviction organizer with Common Ground. “You have five days’ notice,” she says. If apartments were damaged by the hurricane, landlords can get tenants out on those grounds.
In some cases, Rodrigue says, they demanded that tenants continue paying rent if they wanted to keep their home. If the apartment was undamaged, it can command a premium in the city’s post-hurricane housing market, where contractors and people waiting for their houses to be restored compete for the limited supply of habitable units.
“There’s been tremendous rent-gouging,” says expatriate New York organizer Shakoor Aljuwani, formerly with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and now with Common Ground. “You practically can’t find a landlord who hasn’t doubled the rent.”
In the Marigny neighborhood, the gentrifying bohemian area between the French Quarter and the Ninth Ward, a sign advertises a small two-bedroom house for $2,000 a month – or $2,750 with furniture. In the Mid-City area, a basement apartment that was $275 five years ago is now $900. In The Woodlands, a mostly vacant apartment complex in Algiers – on the west bank of the Mississippi River, one of the few African-American neighborhoods that didn’t get flooded – the price of a three-bedroom apartment has gone from around $800 to $1,100 or more, although the elevators are broken and there’s no garbage collection, says housing activist Malik Rahim, the former Black Panther who founded Common Ground.
That spotlights what Rodrigue calls the main problem for tenants now: landlords renting apartments “as is.” “You can complain, but if they’re on month-to-month, they have a five-day notice, and the landlord knows that they can rent the apartment again in a day.”
The post-Katrina rent-gouging has provoked several calls for rent control from liberals and the left, and Mayor Ray Nagin briefly floated the idea last November, but New Orleans does not have much of a tenant movement. Most landlords, says Rodrigue, are small owners—who have had their own problems collecting insurance and are often not eligible for federal assistance—and there are few large buildings or complexes to provide a “focus point” for organizing; a typical rental unit is “half a shotgun house.”
According to HUD, two-thirds of the rental units in the New Orleans area before Katrina were in buildings of four units or less, and less than a quarter were in buildings of 10 or more apartments. In the Lower Ninth Ward, 88 percent were single-family homes.
One exception was the Louisburg Square apartments in the West Bank suburb of Terrytown – the owner, Massachusetts slumlord Leonard Samia, moved to oust all the tenants immediately when the eviction moratorium ended last Oct. 25, after gutting apartments and throwing tenants’ possessions out. As only two tenants had more than month-to-month leases, says Rodrigue, the courts would not stop the evictions. Among the city’s public-housing tenants, less than 900 families have reoccupied their apartments.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), which was taken over by HUD in 2001 for mismanagement, has been trying to shrink its stock for several years. It managed 7,400 units before the hurricane, down from 14,000 in the mid-1990s, and almost one-third of those units were vacant, with many slated for demolition. One of the authority’s 10 main projects, St. Thomas, was converted to mixedincome housing in 2001, and HANO now says that the Florida and Desire projects will probably have to be demolished.