Community members protest against evictions on August 10, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

A heated race for New Orleans First City Court Judge highlighted the power judges have to limit evictions, as millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes.

Local civil court judges may not typically draw widespread attention, but that could change as the U.S. faces an unprecedented eviction crisis.

In New Orleans, a city that already had housing challenges, voters recently elected a new First City Court judge in an Aug. 15 runoff that became heated, inspiring a 2,000-word analysis in a local magazine, a reddit ask-me-anything, and accusatory campaign mailers. Public concern largely hinged on the issue of evictions and whether the candidates, Marissa Hutabarat and Sara Lewis, would commit to using judicial discretion to limit the number of people who lose their homes.

“We believe legally that a judge has discretion, especially in extraordinary circumstances, to do any number of things,” said Hannah Adams, a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. 

Adams, who advises and represents tenants in eviction cases, argues that judges are able to use judicial discretion to chart alternatives within the courtroom, especially during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Adams, judges can “order additional time to move based on disability or health issues,” for example. Adams also contends that judges can require landlords to attempt a repayment plan. 

“The law does also entitle tenants to a reduction in rent in special circumstances if all or a portion of a home is not usable or livable to them, so a judge could rule in a tenant’s favor given that,” Adams added.

Additionally, tenant lawyers like Adams say judges can oversee consent judgments or defer cases to mediation. This can prevent an eviction, which would immediately displace a tenant and show up on their record.

But neither Hutabarat, who won with 60 percent of the vote, nor Lewis took a stance on discretion that reflected these possibilities. Still, the election helped local advocates draw new attention to judicial powers.

Lewis, an environmental lawyer, garnered the most support from progressive communities in New Orleans. Before the pandemic and recession hit, Lewis was highlighting the already existing eviction crisis within the city and she earned the endorsement of the progressive New Orleans Coalition. 

“When I filed to run in January, 50 percent of what the First City Court did was evictions and most people represented themselves, so I knew even then that would be a huge part of my work as a judge,” Lewis said.

In her campaign, Lewis proposed implementing a new pro bono mediation program, advocated for a Tenants’ Bill of Rights, and emphasized that she would make sure all people who came to her court would be informed of their rights and the court’s procedures. 

Over 90 percent of tenants are not represented by a lawyer in eviction proceedings, meaning that they don’t always have the full legal and procedural knowledge of their rights. Civil courts are often more conversational than criminal ones, so judges have more informal interaction with tenants and can play an important role in explaining their rights.

When asked about the eviction crisis in a July housing justice forum, Lewis emphasized that judges are required to follow the letter of the law and do not have the power to close eviction court, as some housing advocates have called for. Hutabarat, a personal injury lawyer, echoed that stance.

Hutabarat and her campaign did not respond to requests for an interview by The Appeal: Political Report. But she told VAYLA New Orleans, a nonprofit focused on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, that she would ask landlords to “compromise and work with these family members,” to come up with a payment plan or allow more time to move. She made similar statements to NOLA.com.

Some New Orleans judges are already making such requests. In June, Judge Monique Morial of the First City Court asked that landlords give tenants more time than the typical 24 to 48 hours to move out. But Morial said she is not able to enforce these longer timeframes without the landlords’ consent. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, Hutabarat’s campaign faced scrutiny for the fact that her live-in partner, Mark El-Amm, owns short-term rental properties in New Orleans. Short-term rentals, like those listed by the companies Airbnb and Vrbo, intensify housing insecurity and gentrification in New Orleans. When asked about this by local magazine Antigravity, a Hutabarat campaign representative called the question sexist, though Hutabarat herself did eventually confirm that a member of her household is involved in the short-term rental market. 

Now that Hutabarat is elected, housing justice advocates hope that she will cultivate a tenant-friendly culture in her courthouse as a new wave of eviction cases comes in.

Prior to the pandemic, New Orleans had nearly twice the eviction rate of the national average; in some Black neighborhoods, that multiplied to nearly four times the average. According to a report from Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a local housing justice organization, 62 percent of cases in Orleans Parish resulted in a court-ordered eviction with a 24-hour notice to vacate. In the majority of these cases, the tenant owed no more than one month’s rent.

“The people who go to [First City Court] are usually lower-income and lack legal representation, so a judge can have a really big impact,” said Frank Southall, lead organizer at Jane Place.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these already exigent circumstances as more people are unemployed and struggling to afford rent. In Louisiana, one in five renters are at risk of being evicted by the end of the year. At the time of publication, neither the state legislature nor Congress had extended an eviction moratorium or offered further protections to renters. 

The city has offered rental assistance programs, but thousands of residents applied and the funds were quickly exhausted. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is now asking New Orleanians to donate to a rental assistance fund to help housing insecure residents. 

Absent further state and federal support for renters, judges could be what stands between some renters and homelessness.

“If there isn’t any relief by the end of this month, I just don’t know how the city is going to handle the volume of people who are going to get evicted,” said Adams. According to a report this week from WWNO, the city’s NPR station, nearly 30,000 households are at risk of being evicted in Orleans Parish. There are about 150,000 households in the parish. 

Even beyond elections, civil courts may continue to be a focus as evictions continue this month. 

On July 30, the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly shut down the First City Court by blocking all entrances, preventing multiple eviction hearings from occurring that day. The group asked the court to stop evictions and the government to provide better rental assistance. 

Tenants rights organizing has become a key fight in the city as the pandemic lockdown enters its sixth month. The Renters Rights Assembly has set up tables outside apartment complexes to recruit tenants to the fight, as well as hosted weekly public Zoom calls. 

“Housing and the way that people relate to things like housing justice is so particular to the laws and policies and even judges of a city. So the local fights are really important,” said Southall, who is part of the Renters Rights Assembly. 

Southall emphasized that unlike some states, Louisiana does not have robust tenants rights written into the law. 

Princeton’s Eviction Lab gave Louisiana zero out of five stars on its COVID Housing Policy Scorecard which measured court processes, short-term support, and tenancy protection efforts, among other aspects. At least 20 states scored one star or above. These differences in policies across cities and states may prove particularly meaningful as 17 million to 23 million Americans face evictions in the coming months. 

Los Angeles County has extended its eviction moratorium through the end of September. But in Detroit and San Antonio, Texas, eviction moratoriums have ended, sparking protests at courts where eviction hearings have resumed. 

To Southall, this makes local organizing all the more important. 

“People recognize that there are solutions and are willing to push for a future that is rooted in revolutionary thinking while also knowing there are actionable reforms we can take now,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in some of these [policy] positions, but it’s important to see that people are just like, ‘Give me decent housing.’”