Jas Robinson worries she will fall through the weak floors in her New Orleans apartment. (La’Shance Perry/Verite News)
NEW ORLEANS – Jas Robinson walked through the kitchen of her Tulane-Gravier apartment on a warm October afternoon. Her large calico cat, Badu, weaved between her legs, dodging the soft spots in the linoleum that buckle even at the weight of a feline.
Every day, as Robinson, 30, a caterer, moves between the stove and the countertop preparing hot food, she feels as though she is “one bad step” away from plummeting through the entire floor.
“As you step on it, you can feel it sink,” she said.
Robinson moved into the house in the fall of 2020. Finding work was difficult at the time. The Covid-19 pandemic had forced her to leave her job as a chef. But she said moving into the place made her feel as if she were on the verge of a breakthrough in her life and career. The apartment’s large windows provided ample sunlight, a promise of better days ahead.
Then the first rainstorm hit. Water poured through the gorgeous old windows into her bedroom. Rainwater buckled the floor and drenched her rugs. A bedroom wall adjacent to the windows swelled up with water damage and peeled from itself, revealing narrow wood lath boards behind the crumbling plaster.
Next door, on the other side of the duplex, Roy Wilson, 65, worries about cooking on his stove because plaster is crumbling from the ceiling above it, thanks to another unaddressed leak.
In June, Robinson and Wilson repeatedly called and texted their landlord about the leaks caused by the heavy summer rain. Their landlord told them to put plastic bags in the cracks of the window frames to catch the water before it got into the home’s electric heaters, then promised to have someone come out in a few days. A week later somebody associated with the landlord brought a piece of plywood to fix the bedroom wall that had been damaged from the leak, but no work was done. After months of gathering dust in Robinson’s kitchen, the plywood was installed on the bedroom wall in early October.
The house is owned by Catherine Simon, a Florida-based architect who owns 16 rental properties in the city. When reached by phone, Simon declined to comment on the record, saying she did not want to be identified in this article.
The Iberville Street duplex is just one example of what housing advocates say is a citywide problem. About half of New Orleans homes are occupied by renters, and many are forced to live in substandard, even uninhabitable homes — with structural damage, mold and rat and insect infestations.
Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, recalled the situation of a woman receiving supportive services from the organization. This woman was “living in deplorable, unimaginable conditions” but her low income made it difficult to find alternate housing. Coupled with her fear of homelessness, the woman remained in the home because it was “at least better than being on the streets,” Morris said.
Like the Tulane-Gravier neighbors, many tenants can find no remedy for those issues, because of slow or non-responsive landlords.
For years, housing advocates have called for the city to step in to address the problems with rental properties through a so-called “Healthy Homes” ordinance aimed at regulating and improving rental properties. In 2015 and 2017, then-City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell proposed such an ordinance, but the proposals never made it to a full council vote.
Then in September, New Orleans Councilmember JP Morrell sponsored his own Healthy Homes ordinance. As originally proposed, the ordinance would have required landlords to register their properties with the city and submit to regular inspections.
In an October interview, Morrell said the ordinance would help ensure that landlords provide a “safe and healthy environment for all inhabitants.”
“There is no one excluded – everyone is covered by Healthy Homes,” Morrell said. “The underlying purpose of Healthy Homes is to set a minimum healthy standard of rental units.”
AirBNBs and other short-term rentals will also be included in the newly instituted standards, he said. All rental properties, from studios in Uptown to high-rises in the Central Business District will be made to register and maintain the standards set in the ordinance.
Morrell’s ordinance passed a council vote last week. But the final version was not what he or proponents originally envisioned. Last-minute amendments stripped out a requirement that all properties be inspected every three years, whether or not they had received complaints from tenants, as well as the various registration and inspection fees.
Morrell said at the meeting that he felt conflicted about the changes. But he said they represented a necessary compromise to appease both housing advocates and landlords.
Morrell did not respond to Verite’s requests for a comment regarding the amended ordinance.
What the ordinance does
Under the amended ordinance, landlords will be required to register residential rental properties and be issued a “certificate of compliance” by inspectors and contractors hired by the city’s Department of Safety and Permits and Code Enforcement. Landlords whose units fail inspection would be fined and stripped of the certificate, making the unit theoretically unrentable.
But the new ordinance does not specify how much landlords would be fined for failed inspections or how much time landlords would have to make repairs before they are stripped of their certificate of compliance.
The new ordinance also provides opportunities for “mom and pop” landlords to apply for assistance to make repairs when they cannot afford the fees. In addition, a companion ordinance passed last week establishes an anti-displacement fund — funded with a portion of fees collected by landlords for late registration — to assist tenants who live in units that fail inspection move to livable apartments, though finding new rentals is not simple, given the city’s affordable-housing shortage.
And lastly, the new Healthy Homes Ordinance includes an anti-retaliation clause designed to protect a tenant who requests an inspection, notifies authorities about poor home conditions, or testifies in court regarding violations of the ordinance.
Landlords whose tenants report problems to the registry cannot terminate the tenants’ leases, increase their rent, or reduce their services, such as lawn maintenance, for six months. Landlords accused of retaliation will have the chance to dispute the claims by proving the tenant is delinquent in rent payments, causing property damage or otherwise in violation of their established lease.
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Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, considered the original version of the ordinance a step forward from the existing “broken system,” where the burden falls entirely on renters themselves. “Tenants who complain open themselves up to eviction and being forced from their homes.”
The anti-retaliation protections are needed, but Hill is disappointed in the council’s decision to remove regular inspections from the ordinance.
“If the needs and voices of New Orleanians were listened to, this ordinance (would’ve) passed with no amendments and every single councilmember would vote in favor of it,” Hill said. She also emphasized the importance routine inspections have in bolstering New Orleans’ supply of storm resilient homes.
Morris was also disappointed that regular inspections were removed from the amended ordinance, which she said is drastically different from what was initially proposed. Morris, who previously supported the ordinance, said coalition members were not made aware of the amendments until days before the vote and called the short notice amendments a “bait and switch.”
Many housing advocates see a new urgency for resilient affordable housing in the city, given the impact Hurricane Ida had on some of the city’s dilapidated buildings in the fall of 2021 and the increasing probability, due to climate change, that such a severe storm could hit New Orleans again.
But the new ordinance falls short, housing advocates said.
“Removing the regular inspections makes this simply an apartment list,” Morris said.
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