Sylvia Burn has repeatedly warned her landlord over the past year of leaks in the ceiling of her Prytania Street apartment, she told The Lens in an interview last week. She moved there at the end of 2019, initially with a lease. Last year, at the end of her lease, she switched to a month-to-month arrangement.
“There had been leaks that I had noticed in all of the rooms, starting around August 2020,” Burn said. This was one of the many issues she said he had not addressed.
“[There were] persistent problems with my broken kitchen sink, no hot water during the winter for over two weeks, a gas leak from my stove that made us and my dog sick, a theft that was never resolved ” , she said. “[He] never replaced the broken stove even after the leak was reported, the air conditioning unit was broken for several weeks.
She also had to hire her own exterminator to fix a pest control problem involving squirrels and rats, she said.
But the ceiling was his biggest worry in the days leading up to Hurricane Ida on August 29.
On August 27, Burn texted his landlord one last time asking if he was planning on doing anything about the ceiling leaks or closing the windows. He told her it was too late to fix the leaks, which Burn says he informed a property manager several weeks before.
“No plans to go on board… FYI, this house during Katrina suffered almost 0 damage… so don’t really worry,” he replied by text message.
After it became clear that her landlord was not going to secure the apartment, Burn decided to get a hotel room in the central business district to weather the storm.
“Monday morning, I came home after the storm, and the bathroom ceiling had collapsed. Everything in my apartment was waterlogged, ”Burn told The Lens.
There was water all over the floor, all the furniture was completely soaked. The ceiling was littered with water stains and the water was still flowing Monday after the storm passed. The bathroom ceiling collapsed completely.
“When I told my landlord about it, he said, ‘Sorry to hear that, but I’m going to need you by then,’” she said.
Reports that landlords fail to address recurring issues are extremely common, said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
“The Fair Housing Action Center receives these calls every week,” he said. “We get them all the time because the City has no system to provide safe housing for New Orleans people on a good day. “
And when there is a storm, minor issues in rental housing can lead to disasters like what Burn experienced.
“Small leaks turn into a deluge during a storm. When your air conditioner is turned off for several days, not only is there dangerous heat, but mold grows. Ciardullo said.
But the state and the city lack firm protections to address these kinds of issues in rental housing, Ciardullo said.
“We have an existing habitability code that the City could enforce, but it doesn’t have the resources to do so with interior infractions,” he said. “Most of the complaints about the enforcement of the code involve the exterior of a property and these are obviously easier to inspect.”
Additionally, there are no national or local legal protections for tenants who request repairs or report a violation.
“In most other states, if you request a remedy or report a violation and your landlord tries to evict you at any time during the next six months, it is assumed to be retaliation, unless the landlord can prove otherwise. “, did he declare. “We don’t have such a law here, so most of the people who report issues get kicked out and it has a serious chilling effect. Tenants know they have no rights here, so they don’t report.
His group has long had a potential solution in mind: a “healthy homes ordinance”.
“A Healthy Homes program, as we envision it, should include both retaliation protections and a proactive inspection system so that the burden of law enforcement does not fall on the tenant. “
For years, the Fair Housing Action Center and other housing advocates have lobbied for a potential solution: enforceable living standards in rental properties through a Healthy Homes Ordinance.
Before becoming mayor of New Orleans in 2018, LaToya Cantrell, then a city councilor, was a strong advocate for such a law. An ordinance her office worked on – and which she co-sponsored with then-advisor Jason Williams – would have, among other things, required rental property owners to add their properties to a public database and to submit to regular inspections for mold, lack of electricity. , broken appliances and damaged walls and ceilings.
But the ordinance was never the subject of a full council vote.
“The City Council and Mayor of New Orleans have had several opportunities to put in place a healthy homes program that sets basic health and safety standards and requires regular inspections,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
Cantrell began pushing for the ordinance in 2015. But she filed it quickly after being criticized for lacking details on inspection fees and housing standards. She brought it back again in 2017 – this time with the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the co-sponsorship of Williams.
The proposal succeeded in passing the council’s community development committee unanimously, with four votes, which is enough to move to a full council vote. But some council members expressed concerns about the constitutionality of mandatory inspections. In addition, a number of homeowners and homeowner groups have spoken out against the proposal.
After many delays, he disappeared from council agendas without ever moving to a full vote, although Cantrell stressed his support in his successful campaign for mayor.
Marjorianna Willman, director of the city’s Office of Housing Policy and Community Development, said that despite the committee’s vote, not enough council members were willing to support it in a final vote.
Willman said the administration was addressing the substandard housing problem through other means, however.
“There is other work underway that supports improving the quality of housing and the availability of affordable housing in the city,” she said.
“We’ve taken a two-pronged approach – one is to make sure there are options – making sure tenants have other affordable housing available to them, but we’re also collecting data.”
Willman said there are 700 affordable housing units currently under construction in New Orleans. She also said that the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has received around 17,000 applications, has enabled authorities to create a database of rental units in the city.
“We know where the tenants live and we… know who the owners are,” she said.
“When we offer rental assistance, during this admissions process, we talk to these tenants. When tenants say their homes are not up to standard, we provide them with resources so they can go and find alternative accommodation.
At the same time, Willman said the city was working to identify homeowners who needed the resources to bring their homes up to standard, and that a program was “underway” to help those homeowners get what they wanted. needed, although she did not commit to a specific deadline.
“The program we’re looking at would likely start with the small owners – some of those mom and pop owners who are already struggling – and we will make funds available to them so they can come in and rehabilitate these units. Then they would commit to keeping that affordable housing for a period of time. That way we would have these units online and they would commit to staying online for a long time. “
When asked if a healthy homes ordinance was still a possibility, Willman said, “Yes – I expect an ordinance like this to be developed, hopefully in the next one. administration, as we continue to work with the strategies we currently have in place and are developing. . “
Until then, Hill said, tenants remain vulnerable.
“The fact that we have no system to ensure safe and healthy rental housing is a chronic safety issue on a good day in New Orleans and a life-threatening crisis after a storm like this. “said Hill.
“I don’t know where I’m going to go after this”
Burn, the woman whose ceiling collapsed, left town after Ida and was staying in a hotel in Florida with her two dogs. After she leaves, she plans to stay with her family in Chicago.
Yesterday her owner texted her again to make sure all of her belongings had been moved.
The owner of Burn, who owns several rental properties in the area, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past week. Due to lack of information on his status after the storm, The Lens decided not to publish his name.
Friends helped Sylvia raise funds on social media to cover the cost of moving her belongings that had not been totally destroyed in a storage unit. Burn said she hopes to return to New Orleans, but she is not sure that is realistic.
“I don’t know where I’m going to go after this. I was not prepared for the expense, ”she said. “As it stands, I don’t have the resources to file a new deposit. Not without the help of FEMA or something like that.
“I would like to go back to New Orleans,” she said, “This is my home – but I don’t know when I can.”