$100 late rent fees. Evictions without warning. Refusing to fix collapsed ceilings.
These are merely a few of the myriad abuses New Orleans DSA member Breonne D. has seen in her time as an organizer with Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative.
For over 10 years, Jane Place has fought the deluge of gentrification, rent hikes, and landlord abuse in one of the most hostile regulatory environments in the nation. Their goal: decommodification of housing. Their method: community land trusts and expanded housing rights.
A New Theory of Housing
Jane Place began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A group of activists, artists and agitators sought to influence the city’s development to make it a more just and inclusive place. Recovery planning had begun to privilege homeowners over renters in a classist and racist trajectory, Breonne said.
The Jane Place Initiative aimed to give refuge to families pushed out by opportunistic capitalists. It assembled a land portfolio to build a power base allowing Mid-City residents — mostly renters — to remain amid a push by the powerful to transform the neighborhood into a majority-homeowner area.
This land forms the basis for Jane Place’s community land trust, Breonne said. Jane Place develops property and rents it at affordable rates to lower-income families.
In the long run, Jane Place hopes to sell property to residents at affordable rates and retain ownership of the land the property resides. Then, the trust can protect the neighborhood in a number of ways, including placing restrictions on property sales, prioritizing low-income families as renters, and capping rental increase levels.
It’s a method that expands affordable housing and ensures it endures for decades to come. Jane Place owns four properties, including a 30,000-foot warehouse it aims to turn into co-operative housing with shared kitchens and living spaces.
But access to affordable housing doesn’t lead to housing justice, Breonne said. Benevolent land trusts are unlikely to own the entire city. Renters still need options to fight back against unreasonable landlords.
Fighting for Tenant’s Rights
The tenant laws in Louisiana are abysmal, Breonne said, better only than Arkansas, which allows renters to be jailed for being late with rent.
The issues for New Orleans stem from the state’s preemption laws, in which the state dismantles leftist reforms like the city’s rent control legislation enacted in the 1970s. For the time being, earning more rights for tenants is a statewide battle.
A City of Eviction
The state’s rules have allowed landlords to run amok, Breonne said. The eviction rate is double the national average, and in places like the Little Woods neighborhood, 1 in 10 renters is evicted every year. 5.2% of New Orleanians faced eviction in 2017. This only counts formal evictions, Breonne noted, and it fails to capture the times that landlords gave their tenants little-to-no warning.
It’s also legal for landlords to force leases that waive the right to an eviction notice, meaning the first notice a tenant gets of their eviction is from the court saying they have 5 days to vacate.
The damage from eviction is immeasurable: lives are upturned, children face instability, jobs can be lost, families end up on the street. Evictions go on a renter’s record, making future housing much more difficult to find.
Jane Place is mobilizing to combat rampant evictions by sending monitors to eviction court to record deeper data on who is being evicted and why. By monitoring the ways the court system abuses renters, Jane Place hopes to find new tactics to expose and prevent the mistreatment of vulnerable people.
Jane Place has scheduled a training session for Eviction Court monitors: Monday, July 22 from 6-9 p.m. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get involved.
While evictions are a crisis, Jane Place also has its sights set on other abuses renters face in New Orleans.
There is no law forcing landlords to repair dilapidated units, and a tenant can’t withhold rent even if a unit is unlivable. This means a tenant with no running water has no way of forcing repairs and must continue paying to avoid the costly black mark of an eviction.
The city also has no rent controls or stabilizations. Capitalists had a field day after Katrina, vacuuming up properties for pennies against their actual worth. City policies have encouraged growth like the BioInnovation Center, sending rents skyrocketing. Across New Orleans, rents have risen 20 percent, Breonne said, with neighborhoods like the Bywater seeing 100 percent higher rent since Katrina.
In response, Jane Place has organized monthly renters’ rights assemblies. The autonomous organization is working to build a structure around which the renters of New Orleans can organize resistance to landlord abuses. The renters’ assembly meets the first Thursday of every month (except July, when it meets July 11) at 2533 Columbus St.
Reasons for Hope
Despite the desperate situation of many renters in New Orleans, Breonne sees reason for hope. The anger around housing conditions is growing, and she says New Orleanians are passionate about protecting the cultural heritage of their close-knit communities. Jane Place won allies in its fight against short-term rentals, and although the battle isn’t over, restrictions like the homestead exemption are likely to pass in the city council.
But to continue its fight, Jane Place needs help, and Breonne said she hopes New Orleans DSA members will be ready to sign on.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
– Attend Court Watch training Monday, July 22 from 6-9 p.m. Email email@example.com to RSVP.
– Attend the next meeting of the renters rights assembly on July 11 at 2533 Columbus St.
– Call your councilmember to demand the homestead exemption for STRs and an affordable housing match.