A bill that would have recognized the hardship that the COVID-19 has had on renters and spared them the embarrassment and future consequences of having their pandemic-related evictions accessible to public inspection died in the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee Wednesday after court officials, real estate agents and the Louisiana Press Association voiced opposition.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, would have sealed eviction records for those renters who were unable to pay during the COVID-19 pandemic. Landlords typically look at a renter’s payment history; therefore, sealing pandemic-era eviction records would have meant that renters wouldn’t have a harder time renting properties in the future.
But opponents complained that James’ legislation was not drafted in response to a real problem, that it would create more work for people who work in the court system and that it would protect wealthy folks who didn’t pay rent during the pandemic.
Jim Rather, an attorney representing the Apartment Association of Louisiana, told the committee that if James’ bill became law “a millionaire could not pay their rent and be evicted for nonpayment, and be protected by this bill.” New Orleans First City Court Clerk Austin Badon said the bill was “a solution in search of a problem” and described it as “an unfunded mandate on my office, as well as the clerks and the justices of the peace in your parishes.” He said the bill would add additional work and lead to storage issues for clerks across the state and that those clerks would get no extra money for that extra work.
James said the problem is real and pervasive. “I could have brought several horror stories of folks,” James said. “But I don’t have to do that because you represent the people that are really hurting right now.”
Kevin Hayes of the Louisiana Press Association said the LPA opposes the sealing of public records generally. “What we’re doing here is sealing statewide all evictions that occurred during this time,” Hayes said. “I think that’s a little bit broad and not the best policy if you’re for openness and transparency.”
The bill was drafted to protect people who couldn’t make rent during the economic crisis that was a result of the pandemic, but Rather suggested that it would protect people who were evicted for being bad tenants, even suggesting that a resident who set an apartment on fire in Baton Rouge would be covered.
“The intent is for this to be COVID related,” James said. “If the wording needs to be tightened up, of course we can do that,” James said. But only four committee members voted for the bill. Eight opposed it.
Max Ciardullo, director of policy and communications for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said after the vote, “No matter what parish you’re from or what’s in your wallet, we all deserve a fair shot at getting back on our feet after COVID-19.” Ciardullo, who worked with a coalition of other housing groups on drafting the bill, said the National Council of State Housing Agency estimates that Louisiana would need $300-400 million to fully support housing for residents, landlords and homeowners just until the end of the year.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee don’t seem to share that value and have instead ensured that families who fell on hard times during this pandemic will be stuck living out of their cars or in homeless shelters because an eviction record will follow them for years and prevent them from finding a new home.”