NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly 200 families forced hundreds of miles from their homes when Hurricane Laura struck southwest Louisiana are now facing threats of eviction, an attorney said Saturday.
Bill Quigley, an attorney at Loyola University’s College of Law, said 191 people who live at Wilshire Apartment Homes in Lake Charles received letters from their landlord saying they must retrieve their belongings from their homes by Monday or their property will be put on the street. Documents residents received, and provided to The Associated Press, also show their leases have been terminated as of Sept. 3, Quigley said.
“These documents and the actions described in them clearly violate numerous laws, and I ask you to immediately stop these illegal actions,” Quigley said in a cease-and-desist demand letter sent to the complex's management. “These actions by your corporation are particularly cruel when they target people who have been displaced through no fault of their own due to the hurricane and during a time when people are especially vulnerable from the effects of displacement due to the COVID-19 crisis.”
The documents provided to tenants said their lease agreements were being terminated effective immediately “due to the natural disaster of Hurricane Laura.” A telephone call and text message to a contact for the apartment complex’s management was not immediately returned Saturday.
Hurricane Laura made landfall Aug. 27 near Cameron, Louisiana, as a Category 4 storm. It raked coastal communities as well as the city of Lake Charles, where buildings were demolished and trees feel down. At least 28 deaths have been attributed to the storm.
Many of the residents are being sheltered in hotels in the New Orleans area. Tyneesha Jackson, 22, is one of them. In an interview with The Associatad Press, she said she moved into the unit in April and from postings on Facebook, her building appears to be intact.
She said management initially told her they'd be able to move back once utilities were restored.
“That sounded reasonable,” Jackson said. “They told us we wouldn't have to pay rent for September, then the next thing we see in a post was that they were going into apartments and messing with people's property. Then management, in a post under that one, denied touching anyone's stuff. Then the next thing we get is a text about our lease being terminated.”
Jackson said the whole ordeal has been challenging,
“Mentally, it's taken a huge toll. I was already in a tough spot, but I was finally independent and handling my business. This is the first time I'm handling the aftermath of a hurricane as an adult. I was blessed enough not to have any damage but now we're seeing posts where they want to give the unaffected apartments to someone else so they can make money.”
Quigley notes no one can be evicted in Louisiana "without legal process.”
“You have completely disregarded this required legal process and no court has given you permission to violate the rights of these residents,” Quigley said in his letter, which also was sent to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson as well as the HUD acting field director for Louisiana.
In addition, Quigley notes, the City of Lake Charles has directed residents not to return to the area until further notice.
“We hope the letter will stop the (eviction) process,” Quigley said. “Our hope is that the landlord is not malicious, just unaware of the law. Once they understand the law, we hope they will stop.”
Quigley said they also have reached out to the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office about the matter.
“If the landlord does not voluntarily stop, we will ask the sheriff to stop illegal evictions and stop the landlord from throwing peoples’ stuff out on the street,” he said. “If the sheriff does not stop them, we will go to court.”
In addition, Quigley's letter asks the landlord for information on whether electricity and water has been restarted in any of the apartments and written information on access to renters' insurance that the landlord has been collecting premiums for.