Renters are projected to need a lot more help than Louisiana is giving them

The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together. 

Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.

A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief. 

“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours. 

Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up. 

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late. 

Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says. 

It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims. 

The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only. 

“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”

About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

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