This story first appeared in Southerly and was republished with permission.
Sasha Miller thought 2020 was her year to thrive. She had a steady job as a personal care attendant at a center for seniors and people with disabilities in Lake Charles. She was preparing to earn a certificate in sterile processing technology and wanted to land a higher-paying position at a hospital. She’d recently left a relationship where she experienced domestic violence. Things were looking up for Miller and her 5-year-old daughter.
Then, on Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura ripped through Lake Charles as a Category 4 storm. Miller evacuated to Biloxi, Miss., for a week. When she returned, the city was barely habitable, with widespread power outages and limited access to potable water. Strong winds had blown out windows downtown and collapsed houses; power lines littered the roads. All 12 of Miller’s siblings came home to damage. “It was a very emotional time,” she says. “Everybody went to their home [and] cried.”
Fairview Crossing, the apartment complex Miller lived in since her daughter was an infant, sustained substantial damage, but her apartment was mostly spared. A tree hit the balcony, and some water seeped in from outside. With Calcasieu Parish still under a mandatory evacuation order, they couldn’t stay, so Miller bounced around to hotels for a week. She applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, and in early September received about $2,500 from the agency to cover two months of rent, personal property damage, and critical needs like food, water and prescriptions.
Later that month, she called Fairview Crossing to ask about returning and learned they were ending all leases because of hurricane damage. Miller says she was told she had five days to get out. “I had to leave some stuff behind because I couldn’t take it all with me,” she says. “I kind of felt like I maybe needed two weeks to get all my things.”
Multiple attempts to reach Fairview Crossing management by phone were unsuccessful. The website for the complex states that, due to Laura, “it is unsafe for our residents and staff to remain on the property. We will continue to monitor the progress and restoration of our community.”
Louisiana law allows landlords to seek possession of their property to make repairs if a rental is damaged enough to warrant that tenants not live there during the process. If external circumstances like a hurricane destroy rented property, leases end automatically (though landlords must still go to court to formally evict tenants). Texas has a similar rule, which led to a spate of evictions in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Miller moved what she could into her sister’s trailer. She considered going through Louisiana’s emergency shelter system, but that meant traveling to Alexandria — nearly two hours away — to register for a hotel room in another city. The hurricane crushed her car, and the idea of driving circles around the state in search of aid frustrated her. She hitched a ride with another sister to Houston, where she ran through the last of her FEMA assistance paying for a hotel room for herself, her daughter and a disabled relative. She scraped up enough money to buy a car and drove back to Lake Charles, where she spent weeks living in a tent outside her sister’s trailer, going inside to use electricity or the bathroom.
Southwest Louisiana lacked adequate shelter capacity for those experiencing homelessness before the storms, according to Denise Durel, president and CEO of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. The five-parish region has no family shelter, so a single mother with a child, like Miller, might have to go as far as Houston to find one. When the storms hit, most shelters in the area had to close because of damage. “Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have any sheltering available,” Durel says.
Within weeks of pitching her tent, Miller and her family were back on the road to Houston to escape Hurricane Delta, a Category 2 that hit the same region on Oct. 9. Heavy rainfall destroyed many of the belongings Miller had left, including her daughter’s bedroom furniture and christening gown.
Miller can hardly count how many times she has called FEMA representatives for more aid. She applied for continued rental assistance twice and was denied — once for lacking all of the necessary documentation, and another because the scan of her check stubs was fuzzy. She appealed those decisions and reapplied in February. She says every time she talks to a representative, she gets a different answer about her application status. “It’s very frustrating,” she notes. “Having to call someone three or four times the same day and I’m still getting three, four different answers.”
At one point, Miller found one of the few relatively affordable units available in Lake Charles — storm damage and a pre-existing affordable housing shortage has caused prices to skyrocket, according to residents — but when additional FEMA funding didn’t come through, the landlord went with a different applicant. For the rest of October and November, Miller slept in her car.
It was hard to get up in the morning, to go to work and take her daughter to school. Miller struggled with depression and anxiety, and the stress from the hurricanes exacerbated both. She worried about being exposed to COVID-19. “Sometimes it was a numbing feeling,” she says.
The cascading crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and two hurricanes — and the subsequent lack of sufficient and timely aid — has left renters in southwest Louisiana with few options for places to live. Job losses during the pandemic left many struggling to make ends meet. Lawyers are investigating what they consider to be FEMA’s inadequate response to the storms. And despite a federal eviction moratorium — which President Joe Biden extended through March — landlords have used loopholes in state rental laws to put people on the curb.
“The problem here is housing, homelessness,” Miller says. “A lot of people that lost their homes are now homeless.”
Post-hurricane evictions and a lack of affordable rentals have led to an increase in homelessness. But understanding the scope of the problem is nearly impossible, says Gordon Levine, manager of the Louisiana Balance of State Continuum of Care, a stakeholder group for homelessness service organizations.
After the hurricanes, “we became meaningfully unable to quantify what homelessness looks like in southwest Louisiana,” Levine says.
Southwest Louisiana had an affordable housing crisis prior to the storms. The natural gas boom brought a wave of workers, squeezing the rental market. A 2019 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development analysis of housing trends in Lake Charles reported home ownership fell significantly after 2010 “due to a greater preference to rent, partly stemming from the increase in temporary petrochemical-industrial workers.”
Landlords were able to “significantly raise the cap on what they can charge, which prices some people out of the market,” says Levine. “Suddenly, households who were historically what we would consider to be middle class are now much closer to housing insecurity than they ever had been.”
Lake Charles has the densest population of renters in southwest Louisiana. As of 2019, about half of residents rented — significantly higher than the state and federal rate of slightly over a third. Lake Charles’ fair market rent — the annual estimated amount a two-bedroom unit typically rents for, including utilities — has risen steadily over the last five years: In 2015, the FMR for a two-bedroom unit was $712; in 2021, it’s $869.
Wages have not kept pace. Two-thirds of jobs in southwest Louisiana pay under $20 an hour, according to a report from 2020 by the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. According to an analysis by the Data Center, a local nonprofit think tank, nearly a quarter of renters in Calcasieu Parish were severely cost-burdened as of 2018, meaning they paid more than half of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes exacerbated these inequities. An August 2020 analysis from UL Lafayette reported that Lake Charles lost over 10% of its jobs during the first half of the year. Hurricanes Laura and Delta damaged about half of the housing stock in Calcasieu Parish, according to a community foundation’s report; more than a quarter of all housing units were considered non-livable.
Tarek Polite, director of human services for the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, says that for the past six months, his work has focused on getting displaced individuals living in hotels outside of the region back to the parish and allowing public housing voucher holders to transfer elsewhere in the U.S. if they are unable to find a place to live. Polite says the parish recently released a Long-Term Hurricane Recovery Framework, which outlines goals and responsibilities for federal, state and local groups in recovery efforts.
However, when asked for more details about priorities in the plan, Polite says, “We haven’t gotten that far.” He notes that conversations with housing advocates and other stakeholders will begin in March.
One of the hurdles to addressing these problems is the severe lack of data. Calcasieu Parish usually participates in the annual Point-in-Time Count in January, a coordinated national effort to tally the number of unhoused people. It is never comprehensive, but serves as a useful metric. This year, the Louisiana Balance of State Continuum of Care decided to count only the sheltered population across the state, and asked for a waiver from HUD to leave out unsheltered people. Levine cites risks associated with COVID-19, “but also significantly reduced staffing capacities due to the hurricanes and the pandemic.”
That means that the parish has little sense of how many residents are unhoused. “The only numbers available are last year’s numbers,” says Polite. Last year, 175 unhoused individuals were counted in the Lake Charles region, which encompasses the five surrounding parishes. “But so much has happened in the last year that that’s really not a good number,” Polite adds. “It’s really not reflective of what the actual reality might be.”
Now, the state is turning to the federal government and the Biden administration for help. At a Jan. 26 press conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that FEMA had put $175 million in the hands of survivors of hurricanes Laura and Delta for housing assistance; as of Feb. 12, that number reached $185 million. While that amount is “substantial,” Edwards noted at the time, “it’s just insufficient to do everything that we need to do.”
Edwards’ office reported that Louisiana still requires $3 billion following hurricanes Laura and Delta for a variety of unmet needs. The governor appealed to Biden directly, asking for more federal funds in the form of block grants — which would require approval from Congress — and for FEMA to reimburse local governments for a larger share of recovery costs. Edwards also asked for a specific pot of federal funding to address the housing crisis caused by the hurricanes and pandemic.
If approved, it will likely take months for this money to flow in. Additional rental assistance through the latest COVID-19 relief package also has an uncertain timeline. In the meantime, southwest Louisiana residents are navigating a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork and often still coming up short.
“Without this funding, many of these families will face the reality of homelessness,” Edwards wrote last month.
The Lake Charles eviction court closed from Aug. 25 until Sept. 18 due to Hurricane Laura. Hurricane Delta forced it to close again from Oct. 8-14. But “landlords went ahead and carried out illegal evictions,” says Bill Quigley, a civil rights attorney and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “They just forced people out, left and right.”
Quigley filed a class-action lawsuit in September on behalf of 191 families facing eviction at a complex in Lake Charles. A judge temporarily blocked the landlord from kicking them out, but other evictions have moved forward.
In early December, Hailey Barnett, a staff attorney who specializes in disaster work at Acadiana Legal Service Corporation’s Lake Charles office, started seeing landlords successfully evicting tenants by telling judges they needed to repair damage. “They know that they cannot evict for nonpayment of rent,” because of the federal moratorium, Barnett says. But Louisiana law permits landlords to seek possession of a property in order to make repairs if a dwelling is damaged enough that tenants cannot live there. If external circumstances, like a hurricane, destroy property, the lease ends automatically, though a landlord still has to go to court to formally evict.
A judge then decides whether a unit is livable. According to Barnett, judges tend to side with landlords, who often show up to court with photos of damage, while tenants rarely do. She thinks the rulings are usually too stringent; units often undergo repairs and are still livable, or damage is minimal. “Nine times out of ten, the tenant does not need to be evicted,” she says, “[and] the tenant can still live there.”
Ward 3 Lake Charles City Court, which handles evictions, issued the following statement in response to a request for comment: “No data is kept regarding deciding of cases in favor of one party or another, but it should be emphasized that there were no appeals filed on any civil cases (including evictions) from September 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020.”
The court said it handled 164 eviction matters in that time, a significant decrease from the 669 eviction cases during the same period of time in 2019. Those numbers do not include illegal evictions lawyers say they’ve witnessed since the hurricanes. The decrease is likely because of the relative success of the federal moratorium, too, though as soon as it’s lifted, advocates expect to see a wave of evictions.
Many are also concerned about how long it’s taken landlords to address damage, since it’s been nearly six months since Hurricane Laura. Barnett says some judges are asking landlords about this, and she and Quigley have seen landlords trying to get around the moratorium by focusing on other grounds for eviction. With Louisiana’s lax landlord-tenant laws, that’s easier: For instance, after a lease term ends, the lease automatically becomes month-to-month, and landlords can evict for no stated cause with 10 days of notice.
Barnett suspects that some landlords want to evict their current tenants, fix up the unit, then charge future tenants more — partly to cover the repair costs, but also because demand for rentals is so high after the hurricanes. One landlord told a client of Barnett’s that he wanted to evict her so that he could get a new tenant to pay twice what she was paying.
“Because so much of the housing was destroyed, everything is so scarce,” Barnett says.
This is common after major storms. When Hurricane Michael battered the Florida panhandle in 2018, homelessness surged and rents rose significantly. Research shows people of color are more likely to rent than white people nationwide, and often have a harder time securing government funding assistance after disasters, as was the case after Hurricane Harvey.
Now, “people who are poorer than they were six months ago are expected to spend more on housing than they did six months ago,” says Quigley. “It’s just a vicious cycle for folks.”
Quigley expects to see similar trends as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He provided legal aid to low-wealth renters and homeowners then, and they suffered its mishandled aftermath the most. An estimated 75,000 Black New Orleanians never returned to the city after Katrina.
“A number of people will never come back,” to Lake Charles, Quigley says.
Andrea Polizzi lost her job at a grocery store in Sulphur, across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles, because of damage caused by Hurricane Laura. She had to move out of her trailer and bounced between hotels and friends’ houses. A local women’s shelter told her they had no beds available. She says she received about $1,300 of rental assistance from FEMA, intended to cover rent for September and October. When that money ran out, she filled out an application for more assistance in early November.
“I’ve been waiting ever since,” Polizzi said in January. For a while, she called FEMA every day to check on her application. Then, she started calling every few days. Polizzi said FEMA representatives told her for months they were waiting to make a decision about her application, but she needed to send documents she claimed she already filled out or didn’t have.
Barnett, the Lake Charles lawyer, saw many people get enough FEMA assistance right after Hurricane Laura to last two months. Then, they needed to recertify with FEMA to receive more funding, and Hurricane Delta complicated that process. “I think between the two hurricanes, and the two different claims, that’s when a lot of people got kind of lost in the weeds of FEMA a little bit,” she says. “And FEMA started having backlogs.”
Gerard Hammink, a FEMA spokesperson in Lake Charles, denies that the pandemic has affected FEMA’s funding for disaster assistance programs. He says the agency “tries to help people in many different ways,” which means there are a lot of options.
“That can create confusion for the applicants, but also for even those of us who work in FEMA,” he says. “There’s different levels of knowledge about the programs and all the options that can be taken advantage of. All the options are good, but the downside is that it can be confusing. So I really feel for people who are trying to navigate through that.”
FEMA determines how much rental assistance to give an individual based on an area’s fair market rent. Lake Charles’ fair market rent rose post hurricanes, but the change doesn’t reflect the soaring rents many residents have observed. “With the houses that they have now — where they were $750 before the hurricane, now they’re like $1,000,” Miller says. “No way I can afford that.”
Hammink says that increases in rental assistance above the fair market rent have been made by FEMA in some cases. “Documentation, such as a lease, would help any applicant who is requesting an exception.” He says applicants can always appeal FEMA’s determination, and adds that the agency is still using 2020 fair market rent numbers. It’s unclear when 2021 numbers will be used.
Miller says at one point a FEMA representative suggested she relocate. That upset her. “It’s not that simple,” she says.
“That’s not a FEMA position,” Hammink responds. He acknowledges the process can be frustrating. “It’s all about finding balance between showing compassion for these people whose lives have been thrown upside down and then being accountable to taxpayers, so that we have these requirements for getting assistance.”
Nonprofits and private donors have filled some of the gaps in aid. The United Way of Southwest Louisiana’s 211 line received more than 40,000 calls in 2020 — with huge spikes after the hurricanes — compared to about 9,000 in 2019. Most inquiries were about disaster services and housing. The organization also set up a hurricane relief center in Lake Charles.
When the United Way of SWLA learns of an unhoused person in need, it tries to connect them with resources, says Denise Durel, its president and CEO. “All we can do at this point is to meet individuals, to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, as we become aware of them,” she says.
As generous as these acts are, they aren’t enough, adds Quigley, the lawyer. “This demands a structural response from all levels of government, and it hasn’t received it.”
Quigley, along with Loyola Law professor Davida Finger and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, recently filed a series of public records requests to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and FEMA concerning the state and federal response to hurricanes Laura and Zeta — which hit New Orleans in late October. The requests seek numbers on how many Louisiana residents — particularly those with disabilities — have been awarded rental assistance or other recovery funding, how many have been denied, and precautions taken to protect people from COVID-19.
“We’re facing a tremendous scarcity of hard data,” Quigley says. “Our people are being let down by state and federal elected officials. No federal hearings have been demanded or held, and the only state hearing has been focused on private insurance woes.”
GOHSEP did not respond to requests for comment about the investigation. Hammink says FEMA is complying with the request in accordance with the law.
The legal team’s press release announcing the investigation also cites residents having to move five or more times since the storms as a result of an inadequate response from FEMA and other agencies. Hammink says this was necessary because most were staying in hotels to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at shelters. “At one time nearly 20,000 survivors were housed in hotels,” he says. “Today, the population is about 500, located in two hotels, one in New Orleans and the other in Lafayette, as the state and the Red Cross work with survivors to get them back to southwest Louisiana.”
Quigley says they have not yet received substantive responses from state or federal authorities. He hopes that bringing facts to the surface through these requests, filed in late January, will create a much-needed sense of urgency for those impacted by the hurricanes.
“They have been left behind,” Quigley remarks. “They have been overlooked.”
In early December, Miller moved into a different sister’s two-bedroom trailer where 11 other people live. “It’s kind of crowded in here,” she says, “but it’s better than being outside in a tent and in a car.” Her daughter often asks when they can go home. Miller says Fairview Crossing management told her she can start a new lease in the next few months, but the timeline is uncertain. She’s still waiting on FEMA assistance.
Miller misses her privacy. Sometimes, when she needs to calm herself down, she isolates in a closet for 20 minutes. She often journals. At one point, when the stress of the last six months overwhelmed her, she called a suicide crisis hotline. “It helped,” she says. “They reminded me of things that I need to be reminded of. That I have a daughter to take care of.”
Now, she’s able to function, she says. She can get up in the morning. She recently received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and she’s made it a project to convince skeptical family members to get theirs. At the end of each day, she and her daughter have a routine: They read books and pray together.
Miller hopes she’s through the worst of it all: “I just hope it doesn’t get more stressful.”