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Council Preview: Sewage, drainage, budget snafus and changes to parks

The gist: This week’s council meetings include a number of items that will tee up bigger projects and decisions to come affecting everything from sewer capacity and Vermilion flooding to how the budgeting process will work and how parks will operate.

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Reader Talk: Y’all ready to go dancing?

The gist: Maybe. It depends when, where, if there’s a vaccine or if Lafayette gets its act together on wearing masks. We heard from 62 readers this week on our live music survey. The responses range (y’all got a lot of opinions), but for the most part what we’ve heard is things aren’t quite what they used to be. 

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The Ross Report goes dark on KPEL

The gist: After more than two decades together, KPEL and its smooth but acerbic-voiced conservative personality have parted ways.

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Third Circuit upholds convictions of Marshal Brian Pope

The gist: The Third Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the three felony convictions of Marshal Brian Pope and affirmed District Judge David Smith’s decision to acquit him on one count of perjury. In a ruling issued Wednesday, the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court to clarify sentencing. 

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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. 

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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.

Launch of LCG and LEDA small business grant program delayed

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s plan to allocate $850,000 to a small business grant program in partnership with LEDA is on hold as it awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Originally, the goal was for LCG and LEDA to start accepting applications by June 1, but that timeline has been delayed.

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Retail sales fall $112 million in Lafayette

The gist: April sales numbers released by LEDA highlight the economic fallout from the state’s coronavirus lockdown. Total retail sales in the parish in March and April fell $112 million in 2020 when compared to the same months in 2019. 

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Lafayette loses more shelter space as housing needs mount

The gist: Deterioration of the facility and a lack of funding have shuttered a men’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army of Lafayette. Shelter operators are already squeezed for space. Housing advocates have seen housing needs rise quickly since coronavirus struck and are warning that conditions could get historically bad without massive relief. 

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Closing the shelter was in the works before the pandemic. But the loss nevertheless comes at a bad time. The 26 men staying there have been relocated to hotels, where most of the Lafayette area’s overflow of unsheltered people have been housed since the pandemic took hold. 

“It became apparent that the shelter’s closure is necessary because the building’s condition does not meet the standards of a Salvation Army shelter,” Divisional Secretary Captain Mark Hunter told KLFY this week. Thursday was the shelter’s last day of operation. Salvation Army’s kitchen and counseling services will continue. 

Lafayette has now lost 80 shelter beds since the beginning of the pandemic. A “low barrier” shelter operated by Catholic Charities of Acadiana was closed because its arrangement was ill-suited to house people and keep them safe from coronavirus. Shelter residents checked in for overnight stays and used floor space, which was routinely packed, says Leigh Rachal, CEO of Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. 

“It’s a stress to the system for sure,” she says of the Salvation Army shelter’s closing. “Each additional person we’re trying to find shelter space for is one more bed we don’t have.” 

Homelessness has risen 62% in Lafayette Parish since the onset of the pandemic. As incomes are slashed and job opportunities remain scarce, housing advocates have called the rise unprecedented and are warning that the need will worsen if more isn’t done to keep people who are nearing eviction in their homes. Some of 548 people currently in local shelters are without housing for the first time, pushed off the financial cliff when they lost their jobs during the lockdown of the national economy. 

More than 1,300 people have called 211 asking for help with housing since the end of March. The trend in calls was briefly the most common call 211 agents received in the Lafayette area around the late April peak. Call volumes related to housing remain elevated above normal times but have declined since an early May spike. 

A report suggests metro Lafayette will need tens of millions in rental assistance to forestall a wave of homelessness. The report by consulting firm Enterprise Community Partners, drawn from economic forecasts published by a UL economist, projects $54 million in aggregate need through the end of the year and $125 million through next July. The Enterprise report assumes high levels of sustained unemployment, roughly 41,000 people each month, through the middle of next year, a 20% drop in overall employment, which would lead the state.

Statewide the need tops $700 million in worst-case scenario projections. The staggering price tag has advocates calling for the state and municipalities to divert as much coronavirus relief funds as possible to housing assistance programs, which some communities have opted to do at varying levels. Lafayette is poised to use all $850,000 of an emergency allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on small business grants, a decision that drew fierce criticism from housing advocates. Louisiana has received millions in coronavirus HUD dollars, but advocates say it’s far from enough and are urging congressional lawmakers to lobby for more direct assistance to housing programs. Renters and advocates across the country watch nervously for evictions to resume.  (Stays on evictions are scheduled to end June 5, but the governor’s office indicated it may be extended to June 15, according to NOLA.com.)

“It’s overwhelming,” Rachal says of the scale of need. “The only way we can [match the need] is with federal and state dollars.”

Guillory’s cuts only the tip of the inevitable iceberg

Before we break out the tar and feathers, we need to appreciate the context of Guillory’s budget cuts. Given the dire straits of the city’s financials, these cuts—and more—are arguably inevitable.

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Questions surround parks & rec director’s ‘retirement’

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory had an uneasy time explaining an email he sent to council members Tuesday morning claiming veteran Parks & Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux would be “announcing his retirement from LCG soon.” 

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Tight for time, Louisiana Legislature tackles ‘tort reform,’ medical marijuana, gun rights and more

While lacking time, the Legislature nevertheless managed to push through several notable bills. Among them long-sought wins for business interests and the beginnings of change to Louisiana’s jungle primary.

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Council Preview: Celebrating Reggie Thomas and moving money around

The gist: The city, parish and joint council meetings are relatively uneventful this week, though some moves are in the works on the city budget, bond sales and spending CREATE funds on parish parks.

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