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Unhealthy Homes: ‘Gutted’ New Orleans ordinance allows landlords to neglect run-down properties

It’s been almost 20 years since fair housing advocates suggested the idea of a “healthy homes” ordinance to protect New Orleans renters from substandard housing units and unfair landlords.

In November, following over a decade of organizing by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, HousingNOLA, Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative and others, advocates and renters thought they were finally going to see a dream realized. After months of negotiations, legislation creating a registry for rental properties and establishing a schedule for inspections was up for final adoption before the New Orleans City Council.

Instead, Councilman J.P. Morrell, the sponsor of the ordinance, introduced an extensive amendment that, while adding short-term rentals to the mix, stripped away the inspections that gave the proposed law its legs.

“I can’t imagine having to put in a card opposing a healthy homes ordinance offered by the city of New Orleans, but we find ourselves here today after this very effective and very essential legislation has been effectively gutted by the vote you just took,” HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris told Morrell at the city council meeting where the revised ordinance was adopted. “We rise in opposition. What you have today is not good enough. It is not good enough for the people of New Orleans.”

While the ordinance as enacted does include protection from landlord retaliation against tenants who file complaints with the city, it also depends on those tenants risking that blowback to report unsafe or unsanitary conditions. In practice, this does not offer much protection to renters, because if a renter is behind on paying their rent or technically not in compliance with other provisions of their lease, they can still face retaliation for those reasons.

A centuries-old problem

The deteriorating condition of New Orleans’ housing stock is not a new development. One of the oldest cities in the U.S., the Crescent City has an equally old selection of homes. Add the issues of drainage, storms and poverty, and it is easy to see how the shelf life of some of the older structures that give the city its charm can also contribute to its structural weakness. What’s more, many landlords live in other areas of the country and appear to be less interested in keeping up their properties than in collecting rent.

“New Orleans is unique in that so much of our rental housing stock is very old in general,” said Cashauna Hill, director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “This is a city that is 300 years old. What we find is that it is not just low-income renters who are forced to deal with substandard living conditions. Because there are no health and safety standards and no rules about the ways in which landlords must engage in the business of renting housing, tenants at all income levels are left to hope that they have a landlord who will be fair and who will make repairs as needed.”

Even when landlords are not responsive to requests for repairs, the fear of being evicted or blacklisted for reporting problems keeps many tenants from speaking up. Renters who were interviewed for this story, in fact, did not want their names disclosed for fear of retaliation. All of them related stories of issues running the gamut from leaking plumbing; holes in floors, walls and ceilings; broken or nonexistent appliances; mold, rot, insect and vermin infestations.

Relying on the anti-retaliation provision alone is insufficient and risky for renters, said Clara Potter, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Economic Justice Practice Group, which is supporting the efforts of fair housing advocates.

Eliminating the affirmative inspections was a blow to organizers and renters because, Potter said, “If landlords know they are going to be on the hook no matter what their tenant says to the city, that’s a much stronger set of protections for the tenant.”

Known issues, known causes

While many renters who spoke to the SPLC about poor conditions in their apartments did not want their names published for fear of retribution from landlords, a private Facebook group called Bad Landlords NOLA provides a sounding board for tenants facing problem landlords or seeking advice on how to escape a bad leasing situation. In the group, stories of slum-like conditions, skyrocketing rate increases, and a lack of response from owners are rampant.

April Leigh, a local activist who founded the group, said two major factors added to the city’s housing problems. One is the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which caused levee breaches that flooded the city for weeks in 2005, damaging properties and contributing to the current shortage of suitable housing. The other problem, she said, is that remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the housing shortage and highlighted the region’s wage shortcomings.

“The city has not done enough to ensure that blighted properties are dealt with and turned into viable housing,” Leigh said. “The biggest problem is a lack of repairs, a lack of addressing major issues — mold, leaks, electrical problems. I think it is a very New Orleans mentality to leave good enough alone. That doesn’t work down here because we are getting so hit by nature that things are falling apart in real time. You have to invest. You have to put the money into the building. You have to keep it up.”

What’s more, New Orleans rental prices are so high that they cater to out-of-towners, advocates say, putting the service industry and culture of New Orleans at risk and pushing renters into substandard housing with unaccountable landlords.

“Honestly, most of the people who have reached out in the Bad Landlords group are people moving here from Chicago, New York, places where their income is triple what a typical New Orleanian’s income is,” Leigh said.

Several property owners were called out in the Bad Landlords NOLA forum for failing to repair or maintain their properties as well as other questionable business practices, such as raising rents and not returning deposits.

Looking for answers

Until the morning of the vote on Nov. 3, supporters and opponents of the healthy homes ordinance generally assumed that it would pass without the weakening amendment.

So what happened?

“It’s unclear,” Potter said. “Morrell said that the decision to eliminate the affirmative inspections in the amended ordinance was for the benefit of the renters onto whom landlords would have passed the increased inspection fees.

“The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, the Renters Rights Assembly and others will continue to lead the charge for healthy homes in New Orleans, and we will continue to follow their lead and lend our support.”

In a discussion with Morris during the council meeting, Morrell took the position that securing the protection from retaliation for tenants was a negotiation, a compromise to get the legislation passed. He cited his experience in the state Legislature, where he and another lawmaker fought to have life-sentencing guidelines for juveniles reduced to 50 years.

“Would you rather have this, or nothing?” Morrell asked.

“This was our negotiation,” Morris said of the original ordinance. “It is not everything we wanted. This is what we said we would accept.”

Even in its amended form, under which tenants would have to file complaints with the city in order to have a code enforcement inspector check on a property, opponents of the measure were not happy. Donald Vallee, president of the Landlord Advisory Committee of New Orleans, said he was under the impression there would be no inspections after his group’s meeting with Morrell.

“We met, discussed in detail certain changes that would be taking place in these amendments, that are not in these amendments,” Vallee said. “We don’t see them.”

“There are no longer inspections in the amendments,” Morrell said. “Certain individuals already subject to inspections did not want to have additional inspections.”

Next steps

The latest stumbling block has advocates for fair housing reform in New Orleans assessing their next moves.

One part of the amended ordinance requires a study to be performed to determine staffing and budget for additional inspectors required to handle tenant complaints. It also calls for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the legislation after one year to determine if any changes are needed.

In the meantime, Cashauna Hill – the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center director – intends to keep the pressure on the council to add the teeth back to Morrell’s paper tiger.

“For a variety of reasons, in New Orleans many renters have been relegated to the edges of the housing market in some respects, meaning there are many community members who are forced to accept substandard housing conditions because of a lack of affordable housing,” Hill said. “Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center is certainly going to continue to advocate for comprehensive protections that actually protect New Orleanians’ health and hold slumlords accountable.

“The fight remains ongoing.”

Pictures at top: In New Orleans, an ordinance intended to protect tenants from mold, structural issues and other substandard conditions was extensively amended, stripping away the inspections that gave the legislation its legs. (Courtesy of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center)