People start to arrive at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 28. Carpets were originally put down on the parking lot, but were later removed for sanitary reasons, leaving people to sleep on pavement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to Natasha Blunt. She has already lost her grandmother and best friend to the disease. Now she may lose her home, too.
Blunt lost her job at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center at the start of the pandemic. And now, like tens of thousands of others across the state, she is fearing the possibility of no income and homelessness.
Till now, like other unemployed Americans across the country, 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. Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said Thursday that the average unemployment payment is $216/week.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair-market price of a 2-bedroom apartment in Louisiana is $909.
Since March, the CARES Act has protected certain categories of renters from eviction for nonpayment of rent or other fees. Those categories include people receiving rental assistance from a voucher or grant program, people whose landlords are receiving assistance through federally-subsidized housing programs and people living in rental homes or apartment buildings with a federally backed mortgage.
All those protections ended Friday, July 24.
”I feel like I’m a living person in a dead body,” said Blunt. “That’s how bad it is for me. I’m so down, I can’t even hold a conversation with someone without crying.” Indeed, when Blunt was first contacted by a reporter, she quickly ended the interview because she said she was too emotional to talk.
Blunt fears eviction and homeless, but for so many Louisianans, that fear is already a reality.
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.”
Amanda Golob, the managing attorney of the housing unit for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that the number of eviction cases attorneys that they 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 certain things will get worse if there’s a massive cut in unemployment benefits that happens at the same time the policy protecting some renters from evictions expires.
Blunt was one of those Louisiana residents protected from eviction by the CARES Act. But now, Blunt said she has a month to pack up her things and go.
“If something doesn’t happen for me soon, I’m going to a homeless shelter. That’s where I’m going,” she said.
Without anything to fall back on, Blunt and 130,000 families across the state will be left at risk of not being able to make rent, according to a news release from the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said it would take about $500 million to fully protect at-risk renters across the state from losing their homes, but she said no further action has been taken at the state level to assist renters.
Governor John Bel Edwards introduced a $24 million rental assistance program for 10,000 at-risk renters, but the program ran out of money in 3 days.
“In terms of real assistance that’s going to have a long lasting impact and is going to save renting families in Louisiana from eviction, we’ve not seen any kind of investment like that,” said Hill.
In addition to the categories of renters mentioned above, there’s another group of renters that is protected from eviction even now — at least theoretically. Some landlords who own properties of five units or more and who have federally-backed mortgages have been given a grace period where they don’t have to make mortgage payments. People renting one of those units from them are also protected.
But there’s a big catch, said Breonne DeDecker, Program Director for the Jane Place Sustainability Initiative in New Orleans. If landlords don’t tell their renters that they’re protected, then they may never know that they are.
Renters living in smaller buildings would need to know their landlords’ social security number to know if they’d received mortgage forbearance from the federal government.
“We do have lists of all the large properties that are covered by the CARES Act,” DeDecker said. “Those people can look up their complex on the database.”
Last week, the House of Representatives passed the ‘Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act” or the ”HEROES Act,” which includes $100 billion of relief for renters across the country at-risk of eviction, as well as a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. The bill is still being negotiated in the senate.
“The Louisiana senators can absolutely choose to keep 130,000 Louisiana families in their homes by passing the HEROES Act,” said Hill.
Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy is not for the HEROES Act however, according to his press secretary, Cole Avery.
Cassidy’s office believes relief proposals will pass in the Senate, but Democrats and Republicans are so far removed from agreement that Congress will be lucky to have a bill passed by the August recess, Avery said. That would mean no additional federal relief would be distributed until September.
“The sides are pretty far apart right now, but we are working on it,” said Avery.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was expected to unveil the details of the proposal but adjourned Friday without doing so, virtually ensuring a gap in benefits.
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