Only six months after seeing their homes destroyed by back-to-back hurricanes, many renters in the industrial heartland of southwest Louisiana have found themselves literally on the street due to unconscionable eviction laws, a woefully insufficient federal aid response, a pre-existing housing crisis, and pandemic-related job losses.
Under Louisiana law, “if external circumstances like a hurricane destroy rented property, leases end automatically,” writes Southerly magazine.
And while landlords cannot evict without a court order, the formality does not seem to be a significant obstacle for landlords in Louisiana—or in Texas, which has a similar law on the books. Even the federal eviction moratorium enacted by U.S. President Joe Biden as a pandemic measure has been inadequate in the face of “loopholes in state rental laws,” through which landlords have punted thousands to the curb.
Sasha Miller is one of many evicted residents who, desperate to restart their lives after the devastating one-two punch of Hurricanes Laura and Delta last autumn, have found themselves struggling to get a response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), seeing their applications rejected without clear cause, or getting conflicting answers whenever they manage to speak to a human being.
“It’s very frustrating,” Miller told Southerly. “Having to call someone three or four times the same day and I’m still getting three, four different answers.”
The post-hurricane evictions in a region already suffering from a dearth of affordable rental housing have led to a truly devastating degree of homelessness, said Gordon Levine, manager of a stakeholder group for homelessness service organizations. In the wake of Laura and Delta, he said, his organization became “meaningfully unable to quantify what homelessness looks like in southwest Louisiana.”
For the 78,000-strong city of Lake Charles, housing has been a crisis as far back as 2010, when a natural gas boom and the resulting influx of oil and gas workers led home ownership to fall and rentals to increase. That allowed landlords to raise rents, and many households that were on the threshold of middle class safety have since found themselves “much closer to housing insecurity than they had ever been,” said Levine.
Low wages have made a tough situation worse, Southerly notes. About two-thirds of the jobs in the region pay less than US$20/hour, leaving nearly 25% of those in the hardest-hit parishes paying “more than half of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities,” according to data from 2018.
Then came the pandemic. “An August 2020 analysis from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette reported that Lake Charles lost over 10% of jobs during the first half of the year,” Southerly writes.
And while a February 12 promise from FEMA to deliver $185 million in aid is “substantial,” said Governor John Bel Edwards, the funding was still “just insufficient to do everything that we need to do.”
The actual price tag? Up to $3 billion, said Edwards. The governor has “appealed to Biden directly,” writes Southerly, asking for “a specific pot of federal funding to address the housing crisis caused by the hurricanes and pandemic.”
Without that funding, Edwards wrote, “many of these families will face the reality of homelessness.”