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Advocates Praise Veto of Inclusionary Zoning Preemption Bill, Look Forward to Local Action

Posted on 29. May, 2018 by in Blog, News, Uncategorized

Baton Rouge—On Saturday, Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed SB 462, a bill that would have banned cities and parishes from using zoning rules to create housing that is affordable to the average worker. Housing advocates, the City of New Orleans, the City of Baton Rouge, and the Louisiana Municipal Association, among others, all opposed the bill.

While Sen. Danny Martiny sponsored SB 462 in this year’s legislative session, Sen. Conrad Appel carried identical legislation in 2017 that also failed. In the Greater New Orleans area, where both senators are from, high housing prices are pushing many working families out to the suburbs. A family must make $49,360–significantly more than the median household income of $37,000–to afford a modest three-bedroom apartment in the metro area.

In over 800 cities across the country, municipalities use inclusionary zoning policies—which SB 462 would have banned—to ensure workers can continue to live close to their jobs. The policies ensure that a percentage of new housing units are priced to be available to the average worker and offer real estate developers economic incentives in return. In Louisiana, such a policy would benefit hospitality workers, firefighters, teachers, and others who all make average salaries of below $40,000 per year. 

In his veto message, the Governor encouraged local governments to take advantage of the policy and implement inclusionary zoning policies in the near future. In 2017, the City of New Orleans began to seriously consider inclusionary zoning, known locally as the Smart Housing Mix policy. Mayor Cantrell and a number of Councilmembers committed their support for the Smart Housing Mix during the campaign season. Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s transition plan also suggested the City-Parish explore the policy. 

Throughout the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, a single real estate developer group led the charge to strip inclusionary zoning powers away from local governments. During committee hearings, housing advocates pointed out that real estate developers have benefited from millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives, but continue to stand in staunch opposition to local solutions like the Smart Housing Mix. 

“We’re grateful to the Governor for choosing the working families who make our cities run over wealthy real estate developers,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC). “Now we look forward to working with local officials to pass and implement the Smart Housing Mix policy so that workers can continue to live and thrive in our cities,” she continued. 

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The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) is a statewide, private nonprofit civil rights organization with offices in New Orleans. GNOFHAC is dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination and furthering equal housing opportunities through education, outreach, advocacy, and enforcement of fair housing laws across Louisiana. The activities described in this release were privately funded. 

Legislature Passes New Law Penalizing Bad Landlords and Assisting Renters in Recovering Security Deposits

Posted on 14. May, 2018 by in Blog, News

Baton Rouge—Last Friday, Senate Bill 466 cleared its last legislative hurdle when it passed the Louisiana House. SB 466 finally provides a real chance of recovering security deposits from negligent landlords to the 1.5 million Louisianans who rent. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) led the advocacy efforts for this change because most renters never expect to see their deposit again, even when they do everything right. Under current law, landlords only face a slap on the wrist for unlawfully keeping deposits.

During the bill’s first hearing, LSU law student Jourdan Curet explained that when the management began to let her Baton Rouge townhome fall into disrepair, she gave notice and asked for her security deposit back after moving. Her unit was still in good condition when she left, but after multiple requests—including with the help of her mother’s law firm—she had still not seen a dollar of her $500 deposit. “Even if I took my landlord to small claims court and won, I’m sure he’d continue keeping deposits because most students don’t have the knowledge, time, or resources to file in small claims and the penalty was negligible for him either way,” said Curet. “I know I have access to more resources than most renters, so I’m elated that we’ve finally created some fairness in this part of the law,” she continued.

Photo: Jourdan Curet posing with a fake check for what she would have spent her deposit it on, if it had been returned.

SB 466, carried by Sen. Ed Price of Gonzales, increases the penalty to bring it into line with national standards. When the new law goes into effect on August 1, 2018, renters who win their case can recover three times as much as typically awarded under current law. For a Louisiana renter who spends roughly $800 on a security deposit, the amount recovered from a negligent landlord would increase to $2,400.

“A higher penalty might have created some incentive for my landlord to return my deposit,” said Aimee Struble, a self-employed house painter in New Orleans. “Instead, it took being lucky enough to find pro-bono counsel and two years to get to court to finally recover any damages.” Struble was renting from a large real estate developer and had to leave after a roof leak and mold damaged most of her belongings.

Photo: Aimee Struble posing with a fake check for what she would have spent her deposit it on, if it had been returned.

This new law is the culmination of four years of work at the Legislature, starting with a 2014 Senate resolution that acknowledged renters in Louisiana have few rights and called for a comparison of state landlord-tenant law to national standards.

Further study found that Louisiana security deposit law had not been updated since 1985 and was notably out of step with surrounding states. After initial opposition by landlord lobbying groups in 2017 and during the 2018 legislative session, GNOFHAC, legal experts, and landlord groups agreed to increase penalties for landlords who do not follow the law. The final bill passed out of committees in both houses with the unanimous support of lawmakers.

“Loyola Law Clinic routinely represents low-income renters whose landlords have stolen their security deposits. Even after winning a lawsuit, the most renters usually receive back under the old law is the stolen deposit. For bad actors, that was no disincentive. Low-income people cannot easily access attorneys or the courts. Without deposit funds, there is a struggle to secure new housing. The new law is a step in the right direction for Louisiana renters and for our communities,” said Davida Finger, a Loyola University College of Law professor who helped craft the reforms in the bill.

“Anyone who has rented in Louisiana knows the law is stacked against you. As families across the state see increases in college tuition, health insurance, and other expenses, we’re grateful to see the state offer this measure of economic relief to Louisiana’s 1.5 million renters,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of GNOFHAC. The results of GNOFHAC’s own survey showed that most renters would have used their deposits for their next apartment or to pay off bills, had the deposits been returned.

 

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) is a statewide, private nonprofit civil rights organization with offices in New Orleans. GNOFHAC is dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination and furthering equal housing opportunities through education, outreach, advocacy, and enforcement of fair housing laws across Louisiana. The activities described in this release were privately funded. 

Red Lines and Keep Out Signs: 300 Years of Discrimination, Divestment & Displacement In New Orleans

Posted on 24. Apr, 2018 by in Blog

Amidst the excitement of celebrating New Orleans’ tricentennial, GNOFHAC is taking a look at 300 years of housing policy and housing segregation in New Orleans.

New Orleans is a special place that is rich with culture and tradition but, like many cities in the United States, New Orleans also has deep racial divides. The Data Center’s new article, “Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk,” lays out how the segregation that we see today is rooted in discriminatory housing policies and practices that are as old as the city.

From only allowing wealthy white settlers to build above sea level (therefore denying African American communities access to housing that doesn’t face environmental risk), to racially discriminatory zoning policies, to restrictive covenants that stated in the deeds for homes that they could only be sold to white families, New Orleans’ history helps us understand the persistence of housing segregation today.

Policy decisions made during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina further deepened these inequalities. New Orleans had a unique opportunity to reverse many of the long-standing patterns of residential racial segregation using the billions of recovery dollars the city received to rebuild. However, instead local, state and federal policy makers chose policies that “repeated or amplified existing patterns of separation and inequality.” One such example was the Road Home program which based grant amounts on pre-storm market value rather than the actual cost to rebuild. As a result, residents in majority white, wealthier neighborhoods were able rebuild while African American homeowners with lower property values found it difficult to return home.

Now, as we welcome a new city council and mayor to office, we must continue to push for policies that say no to segregation and encourage inclusion.

To learn more, join GNOFHAC for a panel discussion about the findings of the new Data Center report, Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk, on April 26th from 6-8pm at Propeller Incubator, 4035 Washington Ave.

National Insurer Settles Case Alleging Discrimination Against Housing Choice Voucher Participants

Posted on 19. Apr, 2018 by in Blog, News

New Orleans—National insurer Covington Special Insurance Company (Covington) has agreed to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) and a local landlord. The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana in September 2017, alleged that Covington discriminated on the basis of race, sex, and familial status by denying liability insurance to New Orleans landlords who accept tenants utilizing Housing Choice Vouchers (informally known as “Section 8” vouchers). 

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program provides housing subsidies to low-income families seeking housing in the private rental market. The complaint alleged that the Covington’s policy had the effect of making it harder for HCV households—who are disproportionately African American, female-headed, and families with children—to access housing. The complaint also alleged that the insurer’s discriminatory policies disproportionately affected predominately African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans, where HCV households are highly concentrated. 

GNOFHAC and Dr. Andre Baugh were plaintiffs in the litigation. The litigation arose after Covington Specialty Insurance Company canceled Dr. Baugh’s liability policy because he disclosed that HCV families occupied five of his eight rental units. A local agent explained to Dr. Baugh that Covington was “not in the business of doing Section 8.” Covington is based in New Hampshire and operates as a subsidiary the Alleghany Corporation, a national publicly traded investment company with a focus on property and casualty insurance. After finally securing insurance from another insurer at a higher rate, Dr. Baugh contacted GNOFHAC, which undertook significant public education and outreach efforts to counteract the insurers’ discriminatory policies.

The complaint alleged that Covington’s discriminatory policy was based on stereotypes about voucher holders, rather than any particular risk analysis. Despite such negative stereotypes, New Orleans data shows HCV households are far less transient than market-rate renters. According to U.S. Census and HUD data, 22% of all New Orleans renter households moved in the last year compared to only 7% of HCV families, who stay in their units for an average of seven years.

As a result of the settlement, Covington will stop considering individuals’ source of income when determining pricing or eligibility for property or commercial liability insurance sold to owners of private rental properties. In addition, Covington will no longer ask owners whether they rent to HCV households. Covington agreed to pay $160,000 to compensate plaintiffs for their damages and attorneys fees. 

“Stereotypes and assumptions are simply not a valid reason to perpetuate segregation or deny families housing,” said GNOFHAC Executive Director, Cashauna Hill. “We commend Dr. Baugh for coming forward with this complaint and encourage anyone else who suspects they may have been a victim of housing discrimination to contact the Fair Housing Action Center.”

Plaintiffs separately reached a settlement with Covington’s local broker, Hull & Company, which issued and administered Dr. Baugh’s policy with Covington.

The Plaintiffs were represented by Relman Dane and Colfax PLLC, GNOFHAC’s Legal Director, Elizabeth Owen, and Galen Hair of Scott, Vicknair, Hair & Checki.