Housing instability in Acadiana surges, just as local coronavirus curve begins to flatten

A makeshift bed laid out between buildings in Lafayette Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Confirming warning signs from earlier in the pandemic, more and more people are falling off the financial cliff and out of housing, many for the first time. Calls for sheltering help have climbed over the last month, according to data from 211, and moratoria on evictions and utility disconnections will soon end. 

Almost 1,000 people in the region have called 211 for housing assistance since April 22. There are a marginal number of duplications among those call entries, according to 211, but the figure nevertheless represents a staggering increase in demand over the course of the last few weeks. On May 11, 232-HELP referred 103 people for housing assistance, the largest one-day total ever for the market. Overall, the volume of calls for some kind of housing assistance has overtaken the share of calls to 211 each day. In Lafayette Parish, 874 people have asked for housing-related help since the end of March. Figures ballooned week-to-week. 

“These are people who were close to the edge anyway,” says Leigh Rachal, the executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessnes. In other words, this represents only the first wave of housing insecurity and doesn’t include Lafayette’s renters, many of whom will face resumed eviction actions in short order. Louisiana’s moratorium on evictions is set to end May 15, and protections for renters in federally backed or subsidized housing will end in July, assuming Congress doesn’t extend those provisions of the CARES Act. Lafayette City Court expects a high volume of eviction filings to come after its two months of closure ends, says Judge Doug Saloom, the court’s chief judge. The court has already received calls from landlords indicating an intention to file evictions.

“We’ve never been closed for two months, and we’ve never gone for two months when we were open without an eviction being filed,” Saloom says. 

Five thousand people are now far enough behind on their utility payments that LUS would normally schedule them for disconnection. Those people are not in immediate danger of losing their electricity and water,  however. LUS suspended disconnections and late fees for 60 days in mid-March and has committed to working on payment plans with customers to spread out the debts. Still, the figure is a sobering marker of a so-far obscured economic toll. While the pandemic’s curve flattens, many people are flat on their backs. 

“It’s not uncommon for us to see $800 utility bills,” says Kim Boudreaux, executive director of Catholic Charities of Acadiana. Catholic Charities runs the Share the Light program on LUS’s behalf; the program allocates money donated from LUS customers to families who need help paying the utility bills. The fund won’t be able to keep up with demand, she says, noting the monthly allocations reflect disbursements to the program that are months old. The money available now reflects pre-pandemic billings. 

Overall, housing advocates worry the worst is yet to come. Calls for housing assistance have supplanted calls for food, questions about the virus or federal business relief since the beginning of May. Catholic Charities’ Boudreaux says the organization normally receives about 20 referrals a week. (Catholic Charities is the largest shelter provider in the region.) Those calls have climbed to 60 a day. 

“It’s going to be a long road to recovery for a lot of people,” Boudreaux says.

Unemployment in Acadiana is around 19%. That’s above the projected national unemployment rate of 14.5% and well beyond the depths of the 2014 oil crash. Nonprofits have warned since the beginning that the pandemic would crest a wave of need at a time when resources to meet it are plummeting. Efforts to jumpstart the economy — either by reopening or by direct financial stimulus — are halting at best so far. An extended downturn, recession or even depression could be devastating as social safety net dollars available to nonprofits or governments shrink.