New Orleans Residents Face Eviction From Homes as Rents Skyrocket and Legal Protections Remain Weak

StoryDecember 16, 2005
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Three months after fighting for their lives in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, many survivors are now fighting to keep their homes in the city of New Orleans. We speak with attorney Ishmael Muhammad and a N.O. resident being evicted about the rising costs of rent and the legal challenges facing evacuees. [includes rush transcript]

hey are victims of a combination of massive forced evictions taking place throughout the city, a failure of the city to reopen public housing projects and price gouging that is raising rents as much as three times as high as their pre-Katrina level. Again, it is mostly the poor, and African-Americans who face these conditions.

Louisiana had some of the weakest tenant protection laws in the nation even before Katrina hit. And in the weeks after the storm, landlords began evicting thousands of people a day, most of whom had evacuated the city. The landlords cite increased insurance costs and the need to repair damaged property. They also point out that neither FEMA nor the state, are helping them to pay their bills. But there have been many reports of landlords jacking up the rents of undamaged property and evicting people who tried to pay their rent.

The vast majority of public housing units in the city have also not been reopened, even though it is estimated that about half of the units are either ready for occupation or can easily be made so.

  • Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney with the Advancement Project which is part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund.
  • Sonia Kahn, is being evicted from her apartment in New Orleans.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now from Atlanta by Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney with the Advancement Project, which is part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. We’re also joined on the phone by Sonia Kahn, who has been evicted from her apartment in New Orleans. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ishmael Muhammad, we broadcast some of your testimony before Congress, the Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina. Can you talk about this specific issue of evictions?

ISHMAEL MUHAMMAD: Well, first of all, I thank you for having us on your program. The eviction issue is huge. It’s huge because it’s one of the primary fronts for what we believe is the effort to change the racial demographic, the gentrification of the Gulf Coast region. And what has been happening basically is the government has allowed the market economy and private land owners to just at will in a disaster situation scourge the city of those who are poor and those who are of African descent.

So, immediately after the Governor Blanco released the stay on evictions proceedings, landlords began to file eviction cases willy-nilly. They had to actually be limited by the courts to no more than a thousand filings per day. That was just in the Parish of Orleans. And, of course, all of the parishes surrounding Orleans Parish, which contains the City of New Orleans, are also doing the same thing. And so, just in Orleans Parish, you had a limit of a thousand per day. Jefferson Parish, you know, same conduct. And what the landlords were using were laws that were applicable pre-Katrina to add insult to injury to those who were already impacted severely by this disaster, by now having them while they’re dealing with their survival needs elsewhere, because they have been displaced from their homes, and while their backs are turned, have them evicted from their homes.

So we think the problem is major, and we took some steps so far to address that problem by actually bringing a suit, declaring that it was unconstitutional for landlords to be utilizing a procedure of notification that existed pre-Katrina that allowed landlords to file for eviction actions and post notices of those eviction actions on people’s doors and have a hearing scheduled for them within three days. The concept pre-Katrina being if the person lived there, they would come home within that time, see the notice and be able to get to court, because that’s their home. Of course, post-Katrina we have a situation where people have been scattered to all corners of the U.S., and to be utilizing such a procedure as if that is really a mechanism for really providing notice to people of their property being taken and their homes being taken from them was absolutely ludicrous.

So we brought the case, and we actually were able to settle the case, because the Orleans Parish city officials and the Jefferson Parish city officials and FEMA were all in a position, because of pressure being asserted on them from tenants and people all across the U.S. who have been displaced and affected by this tragedy, to do something right. They were feeling that pressure in the courthouse, and they actually came to the table trying to reach some agreement, because they didn’t want the case to go to court and have a situation where the whole law was declared unconstitutional.

So we won that case, and we actually got the procedure changed for notifying people of their homes being taken. The procedure now is that if a landlord comes to evict the person from their home, the parish officials have to send a notice out to people at their last known address and also contact FEMA for any updated information on where they’re at and if that information is updateable, when they receive that updated information, they have to send notices to people at their updated addresses, and they have to give people 30 days before any hearing can be held.

So that’s a great difference from what people had, but we’re still facing large-scale evictions because many landlords are doing what they call self-help evictions, where they’re not even pursuing the court procedure to get people kicked out. In fact, after they learned — after landlords learned that they now have to go through this procedure of giving people 30 days to have a hearing, they actually began to turn away from the court procedure altogether and just used the procedure of throwing people’s stuff out and fixing the homes up and raising the rents to provide to these contractors and business people coming in, to get three and four times the amount that they could have charged pre-Katrina.

So it’s a clear affront to the rights and humanities and dignities of those who resided in the city pre-Katrina, those who are black and those who tend to be poor, and we think that it lends credibility to the discussion and argument that, in fact, the real effort in the Gulf Coast region is to change the racial demographic, the class demographic of the region, to make it a haven for the rich and a place that the poor and those with black faces are no longer welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Ishmael Muhammad is an attorney with the Advancement Project, part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Sonia Kahn, on the line with us, evicted from her apartment in New Orleans. Sonia, can you tell us your story? What has happened? How did you get evicted?

SONIA KAHN: My name is Sonia Kahn. I live in 1916 [inaudible] Louisburg Square, apartment 240. My history is when Katrina Hurricane came to hit New Orleans, we had to run. I leave my apartment Sunday, 28th August, and run to Houston. I stay in [inaudible] hotel until the second hurricane come, and the owner from the hotel say you have to obligatory evacuation. I say I no have place to go. I come to New Orleans again, because I live in that hotel is close to the Galveston, where it is supposed to hurricane go hit Galveston.

When I come back to my apartment I opened the door for my apartment, I look in, no light. I go up to the lady in Marrero, permission for spend the night with my family in that house. And next day I come back to my apartment in daytime. I open the door, I look in, I no have any damage in my apartment. Only I have to clean my apartment, but no lights. I say, what I need to do? I no have lights, I can live here.

I go check behind my apartment to the boxes, and they tore off all lights from the apartments, because when the people want to come back to the apartments, they looking, no light, they have to leave and ask for the family place to sleep or for live, but in my case I go to check the light and put on the switch and come to see my apartment, I say I have a light. I am able to stay here because it’s my home.

When I come back to my apartment, I look and they already have some workers behind my apartment. I say, well, maybe they fix the light or something like that, because before the hurricane they have some empty apartments. No, they fix some apartments and they have a lot of empty apartments. Plus, in this apartments — not all apartments suffered damage, because when they empty the apartments, the insulation was dry. I knew —- that happened in this apartment -—

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia, we only have a few more seconds. You were ultimately evicted from the apartment?

SONIA KAHN: Yes. Yes, because when I look in then first days from October, they no waiting the people come back to the apartments. They start empty the apartments and throw away everything from the apartments, and they put away all electrical things and put in big black truck they parking in the parking lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Ishmael Muhammad who has been dealing with so many of these cases. How typical is Sonia Kahn’s case, in this last minute that we have?

ISHMAEL MUHAMMAD: Very typical. I mean, landlords have been using all kind of excuses to get rid of people. In the Louisburg Square case, they actually first tried to not allow people to return to their homes, based on failure to pay rent, but many of the tenants had rent available. They had to go to court and the judge had to order them to accept the rents from people who had their rents available. So the next month after that, they kicked them out based on the places not being habitable. And that was when they turned off all the lights in the apartment complexes, but kept the management lights on, to push in the court the principle that there was no power in the city. So it’s just many tactics being used by landlords basically to get rid of people that they don’t want there in favor of people that they want to woo to the city in this new time period after the disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to continue this discussion as the evictions continue. Ishmael Mohammad of the Advancement Project, part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and Sonia Kahn, evicted from her apartment in New Orleans. As we wrap up, just this comment, a people’s subpoena was served on Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana on behalf of the People of New Orleans, the areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, charging her with dereliction of duty, and evicted tenant’s belongings were placed on the governor’s lawn, along with a sign saying, “Governor Blanco, is this your state of normalcy?”, referring to a statement the governor made when she lifted the ban on evictions on October 25th. The activists also left a list of demands for Governor Blanco to fulfill. Well, that does it for today’s program, though we will continue to follow this issue.

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