"Making sure people have safe and affordable housing is one of the baseline things you need for a healthy community," said Davida Finger, assistant clinical professor with Loyola University's College of Law. "Decrepit housing doesn't happen in a vacuum."
The New Orleans City Council suspended enforcement of minimum building standards on occupied housing after Katrina to allow people to move back to the city and live in their homes as they rebuilt. The Landrieu administration's proposed ordinance would reinstate those standards and strengthen its enforcement tools, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said.
The proposal, patterned after the city's strategy against unoccupied blight, would allow the city to inspect an occupied house without the permission of the owner, levy fines up to $500 per day for each violation, place liens on a non-compliant property and, if necessary, foreclose, demolish or take the property to a sheriff's sale. Occupied housing will be required to comply with minimum standards: a structurally sound and secure building with plumbing and electricity.
If approved by the Council, the ordinance, co-authored by councilmembers Stacy Head, Kristin Gisleson Palmer and LaToya Cantrell, is expected to go into effect in September.
Reaction among landlords and their representatives has been mixed. Joe Pappalardo, president of Latter & Blum Management Inc., said he supports the proposal. But John Radziewicz, an attorney with Crescent City Law who represents several landlords, said the code enforcement hearings on occupied housing would be inherently unfair to the landlords.
"It's a partial court judged by a city employee represented by a city attorney taking testimony from a person working for the city and then there's you," Radziewicz said. "There's no way to beat those people. They're working together and they all have the same goals. The city is trying to circumvent eminent domain. This is one of the reasons we went to war with the English in 1776."
And not all landlords have the money to fix every problem, Radziewicz said. Many landlords are elderly people or young professionals who depend on the monthly rent they collect from a single unit to supplement their income.
"It's difficult to ask someone to fix something if they don't have the money," he said.
The city's ability to enforce minimum housing standards doesn't do anything to address some of the more systemic problems negatively impacting tenants' rights, the worst being the short time it takes to evict people, said Amanda Golob, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, the main resource for indigent clients.
The entire eviction process in New Orleans can take as little as two weeks, from the time landlords notify their tenants of their intention to evict to the final court ruling ordering the inhabitants of the property to vacate. At that point the court can give tenants as little as 24 hours to leave, compared to seven days in Atlanta and 10 days in Memphis.
"In lots of places, especially in a tight market, people are given a month or two months if they're evicted to get their belongings together, find a new place and move their family," said David Zisser with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington D.C. "In New York people get as much as four months. Giving people a few weeks is frankly absurd. I think you can describe it as cruel."
Lisa Burris, an Atlanta attorney who represents landlords, said she has never heard of people being given as little as 24 hours to leave. "I see the other side where landlords want to get their properties back but that seems very harsh," Burris said.
The threat of eviction, and the speed at which people can be evicted, is enough to keep most tenants in line and prevent them from complaining about poor conditions, Golob said.
Watching someone get evicted can be an awful experience, said Kristi August, chief deputy of the Orleans Parish Constable's Office. If arrangements haven't been made, the landlord or management company will throw the tenants' possessions in garbage bags and dump them on the side of the street.
"If you ever witness an eviction you'll see people walking back and forth outside waiting for the opportunity to grab a big screen TV or rummage through everything," August said.
If the tenants being evicted appear to have a mental disability and nowhere to go, the constable's office will attempt to contact a family member, a church or a housing agency to provide assistance. But not everyone gets help.
"Sometimes we'll get in touch with a family member and they'll say we're done dealing with them and won't help," August said. "I've watched people obviously with some kind of mental problem just walk away from their home dragging a suitcase."
There were 4,312 evictions filed on the east bank of Orleans Parish in 2012 and 856 warrants issued to remove people from their housing units, according to Orleans Civil District Court. There were 4,135 evictions filed in 2011 and 4,416 in 2010.
The process can seem cruel at times but landlords need to make hard choices if a tenant is putting their investment at risk, Radziewicz said.
"It's their business to make money on these properties. If tenants are not doing things properly and the landlord is losing money then they should be out of the property," he said.
Landlords, especially those that own multiple properties, have a built-in advantage when it comes to evictions because they have extensive experience with the legal system and the money to hire lawyers, Golob said.
For low-income tenants who are willing to take their case to court, there are few legal resources available and the ones that do exist are under-resourced, advocates said.
The three attorneys at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, down from seven a year ago, aren't supposed to handle more than 60 cases at one time but due to understaffing Golob currently has 89 cases and attorney Hardell Ward has more than 100. Their office used to be open to walk-in clients five days a week but budget cuts reduced that to three days.
For tenants who make too much money to qualify for indigent legal help, the cost of hiring a lawyer can be prohibitive, attorney Ben Misko said, and the number of lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant issues is limited because it's not a profitable business.
"If you're talking about fighting over a $1,000 security deposit and I'm taking the case on contingency because most people can't afford to pay, it's hard to justify all the time and additional costs it takes if I only get $300 in the end," said Misko who initially focused on landlord-tenant law but recently switched to Social Security disability issues.
One of Misko's last housing cases took place in April when he represented Daniel Meson against Josh Bruno, president of Metrowide Apartments, who operates more than 70 multi-family residential and commercial buildings in the greater New Orleans area. Bruno sued Meson, who lived in the Riverview Apartments in Kenner, for $1,895 in damages.
Over the course of two hours, Misko took apart Bruno's case, forcing him to admit that he did not have any pictures of the alleged damage or receipts documenting the necessary repairs. When Misko asked if Bruno provided his clients with an itemized list of the deductions to justify withholding their security deposit, Bruno said he did but neglected to bring that paperwork to court.
Misko also pointed to a section of Meson's lease that stated tenants were responsible for structural repairs to his unit at their own expense. Bruno said that was a typo and has since been removed from the lease.
Judge Rebecca Olivier with the First Parish Court of Jefferson Parish dismissed Bruno's case without prejudice saying that in her 17 years on the bench she had never seen someone come to court so unprepared.
Bruno said he is appealing the verdict and boasted that he has won every case he ever brought to court, though legal action is always a last resort.
"We evict less than 3 percent of our entire tenant population in a year," Bruno said.
"However, there is always going to be a percentage of the tenant base that ends up in an eviction or legal matter. It has been our experience that, in some instances, the housing advocates and attorneys have been misled by their clients. When we are in the wrong, we acknowledge that and attempt to work with the tenant to resolve the issue. We give all tenants the highest level of respect, trust, and service and expect that they uphold all lease provisions."
But Davis said Bruno's lease is the problem. It defines all fees and fines, some as little as $50, as rent, meaning failure to pay them within 72 hours can result in eviction.
Bruno successfully evicted two of Davis' clients, Denisha Goodrich and Bryant Robertson, from the Forest Park Apartments in Central City in January for, in part, failure to pay a $250 administrative fee Bruno charges tenants when they sign the lease.
"We don't know what an administrative fee is and when they moved in he never asked them to pay it," Davis said. "It's something he made up and it's unconscionable and unfair because it allows him to evict people at any time because of these fees."
Bruno, who rents 8 percent of his properties to low-income Section 8 tenants, defended the $250 charge, saying, "We sometimes deal with a transient population which causes more administrative and maintenance costs."
The problem, Goodrich said, is that Bruno never raised the issue of the administrative fee until five months into the lease when there was a dispute over an electrical bill. The lease stated that Metrowide would pay the first $80 of the bill each month and the tenants were responsible for additional charges. Goodrich said Bruno later told her she was exempted from that particular provision and that she owed the entire amount. When she refused to pay, Goodrich said Bruno tried to kick her out.
Bruno's first eviction attempt, which cited unpaid rent and "dues" but did not mention the disputed electrical bill, was dismissed Jan. 2 for lack of evidence. When Goodrich returned home after the hearing, she said her electrical meter was missing. She filed a report with the police but nothing came of the investigation.
Bruno accused Goodrich of stealing her own meter, charged her $100 for having her utilities turned off and re-filed eviction papers, this time including the non-payment of the $250 administrative fee. Civil District Court Judge Angelique Reed ruled that Goodrich's failure to pay the fee was the equivalent of non-payment of rent and ordered her to vacate the apartment Jan. 29 within 24 hours, Davis said.
Bruno described his experience with Goodrich and Robertson as "one of our worst examples of human behavior we have encountered." He accused them of attempting to break into the washing machine to steal quarters, threatening staff members and reiterated his claim that they stole their own electrical meter.
"I hope and pray that (Goodrich and Robertson) have been given or seek assistance to overcome the vices they have succumbed to that led them to this type of behavior," Bruno said.
Goodrich and Robertson said the idea they would steal their own meter in the middle of January to somehow get back at Bruno when they have a 1-year old daughter is ridiculous.
"I felt like his attitude was, 'OK, you don't want to pay me for the light bill, I'm going to take your meter and your lights,'" Goodrich said. "He thought it was going to run us out so he could say we abandoned the apartment but we didn't leave. I paid January rent and no matter what they were doing to try to get us to leave I wasn't leaving.
"Just think if I didn't have a family I could go to when something like this happens. We would be under the bridge," Goodrich said.
Many of the problems illustrated in the Bruno case could be addressed if Louisiana adopted the Uniform Residential Tenant and Landlord Act, created as model legislation by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1972, Davis said.
The act requires that landlords meet minimum housing standards, prohibits leases that force tenants to waive their legal rights or imposes onerous fines, and includes stiff penalties for landlords who unlawfully refuse to return security deposits. The act also specifically prohibits retaliatory action against tenants such as turning off their utilities if they file a complaint against the landlord.
Bruno's lease with Goodrich required that tenants pay $10,000 in "liquidated damages" if they failed to uphold its terms and fined them up to $500 for offenses that included working on automobiles on the premises, hanging sheets or towels on their windows and for "annoying sounds, smells and lights." The lease also required tenants to waive their right under Louisiana law to a five-day notice prior to a demand to vacate.
The Uniform Residential Tenant and Landlord Act, which has been adopted by 21 states including Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma, is being revised to meet modern standards. The new draft that is expected to be completed and sent to the states for possible adoption in 2014 includes several provisions that would significantly change Louisiana law.
Landlords who illegally withhold a security deposit would be fined twice the amount of the deposit plus attorney fees, compared to a $200 fine in Louisiana.
If landlords fail to make needed repairs that threaten the health of the tenant, the revised act allows tenants to withhold rent or terminate their lease and recover damages.
In Louisiana, if landlords fail to make needed repairs, tenants can pay to fix the problem themselves after giving their landlord the proper notice and then withhold the amount of the repairs from their rent. The entire process can be cost-prohibitive to low-income people, take up to three months and at the end, tenants can still be evicted for non-payment of rent if a judge rules that the repairs were not vital to their well-being, said Ward, the legal services attorney.
Part of the problem is that Louisiana is the only state that bases its landlord-tenant laws on property law as opposed to contract law, said Ben Orzeske, legislative counsel with the Uniform Law Commission based in Chicago.
In Louisiana, if landlords don't fulfill their end of the lease, tenants can take them to court but are still obligated to pay rent because property rights trump the authority of a contract, Orzeske said. Under contract law, if landlords don't live up to their legal responsibilities, the courts consider that a breach of the lease, or contract, and therefore the tenant is no longer required to pay rent.
Louisiana has resisted adopting the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act largely, Davis said, because many legislators are themselves property owners and have little sympathy for renters. And unlike landlords, tenants don't have lobbyists or statewide associations fighting for their rights because most tenants can't afford to pay for them.
The same holds true in Texas where, as in Louisiana, tenants rights are virtually non-existent, said Robert Doggett, legal counsel at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
"Tenants are perceived not to vote and not to give to judicial campaigns so they don't have much power," he said. 'They are not seen as a constituency that needs to be given much attention to. Some legislators might remember what it was like to rent when they were in college but they forget about it quickly and only remember how much money they get form the landlords who live in their district."
Another possible solution would be to set up a court that deals specifically with landlord-tenant disputes and has a team of lawyers on hand to provide legal assistance like the Housing Court in New York, Radziewicz said. But it's not something New Orleans is in a position to take on.
"It's very well-funded, which I don't think we can get in Louisiana," Radziewicz said. "And it's very well organized, which I don't think we're prepared for. It's something we'd really need to work at."
The majority of landlord and tenant relationships, however, are respectful and most disputes can be solved without legal action, Radziewicz said. But in New Orleans, like in most cities, bad landlords will always exist because people need somewhere to live.
"We all know bad restaurants. They stay open forever because people continue to go there. That's the same situation with bad landlords," Radziewicz said. "Bad landlords happen because people continue to rent from them. You hear these horror stories about people who really hate their landlord but then they also say, 'But I live in downtown New Orleans.'"