Sweating coronavirus eviction surge, legal community urges renters and landlords to settle up outside of court

The gist: Evictions were put on ice for the last several months, but the pause will finally end June 15. Waiting for a dam to break, legal experts and court officials say renters and landlords should try to work through back payments before hitting the courts. 

High unemployment, reduced pay and months without access to courts could yield record eviction filings. Greg Landry, executive director of Acadiana Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit firm that provides free representation to low-income clients, says he expects a flood to come through when Louisiana’s temporary eviction ban is lifted. The stay has been extended several times, moving along with the governor’s pandemic-related executive orders, but no more extensions are expected. Landry’s office has been receiving calls for housing representation throughout the pandemic, but with courts closed for several weeks, ALSC’s only available recourse was to recommend that clients try to work it out with their landlords. And that advice hasn’t really changed, even as his office prepares for a big influx of calls. 

“Landlords don’t generally want to get rid of good tenants. They don’t make any money on an empty apartment,” Landry says. Reasons for evictions can range, but given historic unemployment, Landry expects most evictions will be premised on nonpayment. For renters who have have been rehired or regained some income lost over the last few months, the ideal path forward is to work out payment plans. Both sides have incentive to see it through without turning to the courts. 

During the eviction ban, landlords could give notice but could not act on evictions. State law starts a five-day clock from the time landlords tell their renters to leave. Once that window expires, landlords can sue for eviction. Those clocks were paused March 16 but will start ticking again Monday wherever they left off.

“All of these evictions have been sort of stacking up, for a long while. All of that pent up demand is going to hit up the courts,” Landry says. 

Housing and community advocates report that some landlords and renters are reaching those kinds of agreements. But good faith doesn’t cover every situation. Many people will remain without income and face the eventual end of expanded unemployment benefits. Landry points out that tenants on the financial margins would be hard pressed to use stimulus dollars to make up for mounting bills, even as others find unemployment benefits temporarily more generous. His firm expects a high volume of calls for representation for a variety of coronavirus-related needs — domestic violence, family law, etc. — on top of the looming housing caseload and is working to add more attorneys. In a normal year, his staff, which covers 42 parishes west of the Mississippi River, handles hundreds of eviction cases every year. The ALSC is seeing a spike in visits to the housing section on the firm’s website. 

211 has received 1,373 calls for housing help since March 30. In recent weeks, call frequency has declined, but a recent report put out by housing advocates estimates that metro Lafayette renters will need $54 million in rental assistance through the end of the year, assuming high unemployment is sustained. Even if astronomical unemployment projections come back down to earth, housing instability is expected to be a major problem going forward as the local economy sputters back to life. 

Representation is key for renters facing eviction. Many renters facing eviction are unaccustomed to the process and unaware of their rights. A report by the Philadelphia Bar Association found that without representation, roughly 78% of tenants sued for eviction face “disruptive displacement,” but tenants with representation managed to stay housed in 95% of cases. In 2019, the city of Philadelphia established a free legal defense program for renters to address what advocates say is an imbalance of legal resources between landlords, who often have lawyers, and tenants, who don’t

Not every tenant will be without protection. The CARES Act — mostly known as the federal government’s multi-trillion dollar relief program — also extended a national ban on evictions in properties receiving U.S. government support through federal housing vouchers, low-income tax credits or federally backed mortgages. That pause remains in effect through Aug. 24, but covers only about a quarter of renters nationwide. 

That means it’s not really clear when the shoe will drop or how big it will be. Lafayette City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom told The Advocate that 20 eviction filings are pending for next week, with another 30 or so waiting in the wings. He expects the numbers to swell in late August or early September once all the eviction protections are lifted. It remains unclear how many tenants in Lafayette Parish are covered by the federal protections. 

“We have no idea how many are out there. We’re getting a lot of calls but not a lot of numbers,” Saloom told The Advocate.