By William Patrick | The Center Square
Only one-third of the funding aimed at helping Louisiana renters and landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic has been disbursed.
Gov. John Bel Edwards praised the federal eviction moratorium extension last week. The eviction ban was implemented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year and was extended multiple times. The moratorium lapsed July 31 but now will continue until Oct. 3.
Under the extension, public and private landlords cannot evict tenants if they do not pay their rent, providing the tenant makes less than $99,000 a year – or $198,000 for couples filing their taxes jointly – and lives in an area of high COVID-19 transmission.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 80% of all U.S. counties and 90% of all renters are covered. The figures may be higher in Louisiana since the state has the highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita in the country.
While renters receive an additional 60 days of protection, many Louisiana landlords remain financially strained because of a lack of timely support. According to the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program, only $19.6 million has been disbursed from $61 million in approved emergency funding.
The gap has affected property owners such as Eloise Gauthier, a real estate agent and rental-income investor of more than 33 years. Gauthier said she’s had to sell 10 units to make up for losses since the eviction moratorium began.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “I’ve had tenants who’ve had problems in the past, and I’ve been able to work with them. Most of them have come through. But now with the moratorium, they’re not working with us like they should.”
Gauthier said some tenants have stopped paying rent regardless of whether they can afford it and applied for moratorium assistance instead. The process requires landlords to provide their federal tax identification, an address and other information.
“I have two people who just applied again. Not because they can’t pay, but because they heard about this they don’t want to pay,” she said.
Gauthier also described good faith efforts that have been stifled by slow bureaucratic response.
“They stood in line for three hours, and, to this day, they have not gotten any assistance,” Gauthier said about several tenants who applied in April. She called another tenant for an update last week: “Nothing. Her caseworker approved it, then it went to her supervisor, then it goes to the (U.S.) Treasury and they’re supposed to send it out.
“I’ve got taxes and repairs to pay. Building supplies are out of sight, and I’m still expected to maintain the properties. Then there’s insurance. Because of hurricanes we’ve had here in Louisiana, my insurance company dropped me. Now they want more to insure my properties. I can’t afford it,” Gauthier said.
Edwards’ office said the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program must work within U.S. Treasury rules.
“Once a tenant and a landlord submit all of the required information and have an approved application, they should expect to receive rental assistance payouts in approximately two weeks,” a spokesperson said.
“We know many landlords have lost rental income and are struggling to pay their mortgages and other costs. Landlords are eligible to apply for the state program, which can cover up to 15 months of rent per tenant. Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds are available specifically to address current needs and we are urging landlords and renters to apply now for available assistance to pay rent and utilities and prevent evictions before the new moratorium expires on October 3, 2021,” the spokesperson said.
The program allows renters to receive government assistance for past-due rent dating to April 1, 2020, as well as forward rent in three-month increments. Past and current utility bills also are covered, along any penalties.
Landlords who accept the funding cannot evict a tenant for past-due rent beginning April 1, 2020, nor can they evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent for at least 60 days after assistance ends. All related tenant penalties, court costs and interest must be forgiven.
Louisiana REALTORS, a real estate association with 16,000 members, said it understands the need to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 throughout the state, but remains “deeply concerned” about property rights and the continuation of the eviction moratorium.
“Property owners continue to have to pay property taxes, insurance, and general maintenance costs that are necessary to house nonpaying tenants. These obligations have not been suspended,” said Norman Morris, the organization’s chief executive officer.
“Some property owners have exhausted their savings, retirement, and other financial reserves to continue to house tenants through this point of the pandemic, but they simply cannot afford to do this any longer,” Morris said. “The federal government’s moratorium and rental assistance program was crafted in a one size fits all manner, but it just does not fit in many situations.”
The state’s rental assistance program is funded through the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Louisiana has been allocated $161 million overall to provide rental assistance across 57 parishes, according to the U.S. Treasury.
To date, 26,316 applications have been started, 10,148 applications have been submitted and 3,718 tenants have been approved. The $19.6 million in disbursed funding includes rent support and tenant utility costs.
Gauthier said if funding doesn’t reach landlords soon, other investors also may have to sell their properties.
“But who’s going to buy them right now if you can’t collect rent?” she said.