On Thursday, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program that he said would help about 10,000 people in Louisiana who are struggling to pay rent because of the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. By Sunday, 40,000 Louisianians had applied, and the application process was suspended.
“The response to our state’s emergency rental assistance program proves how significant the economic burden of COVID-19 is for our citizens,” Gov. Edwards said in a written statement. “This program was designed to help mitigate and off-set evictions and homelessness, and while we have allocated an additional $17 million for a total of $24 million in federal assistance, we know that much more is needed to address this serious crisis for the hard-working men and women who continue to keep our state going during this crisis.”
Edwards said as more money becomes available, the program will be reopened.
The state is already experiencing an eviction crisis. The massive loss of jobs has left an untold number of people unable to pay the rent. But there may be an even bigger crisis yet to come. Till now, Louisianians receiving unemployment benefits have been receiving an extra $600/week from the federal government, but those payments are scheduled to stop this month. If they do,the maximum amount a Louisianian could receive in unemployment would be $247/week.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair-market price of a 2-bedroom apartment in Louisiana is $909.
Since June 2020, Lafayette has seen a 417 percent increase in unsheltered people and a 193 percent increase in family homelessness, according to a document released by the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing. And, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, throughout the pandemic, 40 percent or more of Louisiana renters have consistently reported that they have little to no confidence that they will make the next month’s rent payment.
“Right now our homelessness response network is way overwhelmed,” said Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana homeless coalition. “We do not have the capacity to have more families fall into homelessness.”
Rachal added that COVID-19 restrictions had resulted in a loss of 160 shelter beds. Before, she said, shelters would stick as many people as possible into a big room with sleeping mats, but now, due to social distancing and other physical restrictions, some shelters cannot operate and have since closed down.
Amanda Golob, the managing attorney of the housing unit for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that the number of eviction cases attorneys there are handling has tripled.
“We’re just extremely busy right now,” Golob said. “We always try to work it out with the landlords to keep the tenants in the unit or give them the time they need to move out.”
As overwhelmed as agencies say the homelessness response network has been, they’re bracing themselves for things to get worse.
On Friday, July 24, federal unemployment and CARES Act money is scheduled to end, and if that happens, it will leave 130,000 families across the state at risk of not being able to make rent, said Maxwell Ciardullo, communications director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
The center was one of 54 signatories on a letter sent to Gov. Edwards Monday calling on him to “pursue all options” to increase rental assistance funding.
Ciardullo said lawmakers “need to be prepared to adjust the budget to put more money into this program. They will literally be in session as people are being removed from their homes.”
In his Thursday press conference, Edwards said, “We know there are thousands of Louisiana citizens who will likely need assistance in addition to the funds that we have, so we’re going to continue to look for additional funding.”
The governor said that additional funding could come from the Community Development Block Grant, which he said has not yet been administered to Louisiana.
Rachal believes that the state spending $300 million to assist businesses and only $24 million on housing stability shines a light on how little money was diverted to the current housing crisis.
“Housing is the foundation from which the rest of recovery can happen,” said Rachal. “People can’t start sending their kids back to school if they have to worry about whether they have a place to stay. They can’t really focus on finding work if they’re not really sure about where they’re going to live.”