Mayor LaToya Cantrell presents her proposed 2023 budget to the New Orleans City Council on Oct. 25, 2022. Credit: Charles Maldonado/Verite News

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration appears to have omitted funding in her proposed 2023 city budget from a program that provides free legal services for hundreds of people facing eviction proceedings in the city each year.

City Council President Helena Moreno’s office confirmed that the $2 million for the “Right to Counsel” program is missing from its previous place in the mayor’s 2023 budget.

“We looked for it, we had our staff look for it, and it’s not where it was,” said Andrew Tuozzolo, Moreno’s chief of staff.

Gregory Joseph, communications director for the Mayor’s Office, couldn’t confirm whether the program funding had been cut intentionally or if it was located elsewhere in the budget. He suggested to a reporter that the program might be funded with money the city has received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

According to a budget presentation, the city has $194 million left to spend in federal pandemic relief aid. The money was not included in the main budget proposal, but the ARPA spending plan is expected to go to the City Council for a vote after the 2023 budget is passed.

Moreno, who sponsored an ordinance to make the program permanent earlier this year, will now offer a budget amendment restoring the $2 million, drawing on unspent city funds from the prior year, Tuozzolo said. The council is in the process of reviewing the proposed budget for next year, with a final vote required on or before Dec. 1. 

The omission comes as the affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, where about half of households are renters, shows no signs of waning. Eviction filings in the city spiked after the federal eviction moratorium ended last year and have continued at a pre-pandemic rate, averaging about 493 eviction filings per month as of September, according to data published by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

And many tenants in New Orleans are evicted because they don’t show up to court or don’t have the resources to mount a proper defense. 

The city’s “right to counsel” program, which was funded for the first time in January, can’t solve all those issues, its supporters acknowledge, but it can help keep some renters in their homes. The funding provides tenants in eviction court with free legal representation, as well as offering a host of other services, such as holding “know your rights” events, resolving other landlord-tenant disputes before they reach the courthouse, and providing referrals to the city’s emergency rental assistance program.

Cities across the country, including New York City and Detroit, as well as the states of Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, have enacted similar legislation in recent years, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

Elizabeth Harvey, of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services — the legal aid group contracted by the city to run the program — said she hadn’t personally received confirmation from the Mayor’s Office about the future of the funds for next year.

The Cantrell administration initially proposed $500,000 during the 2022 budgeting process late last year to pilot the initiative, though the City Council ultimately funded the program with $2 million. In May, the council voted to make the pilot a permanent fixture, “subject to the availability of funding,” in the city’s code of ordinances.

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has so far hired eight attorneys, along with paralegals and social workers, to handle cases in New Orleans, Harvey said, with the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center providing two additional attorneys. Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, another affordable housing advocacy group, is also monitoring the city’s eviction courts and conducting tenant outreach.

The program’s attorneys aren’t automatically appointed to tenants, meaning Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and its partners must find people in need and tenants must request representation. 

The program has served about 1,200 people since the start of the year, according to data provided by Jane Place. About 28% of those tenants had cases against them dismissed. Another 65% reached consent agreements — allowing them more time to move out or pay their back rent — with their landlords. Jane Place has counted only 69 eviction judgments among the program’s clients so far.

About a third of New Orleans tenants facing eviction now have legal counsel, compared to about 6% before the coronavirus pandemic, per data gathered by Jane Place’s court watchers. And eviction judgments now make up about 25% of total cases, compared to more than 60% two years ago.

“This is the beginning,” Harvey said. “See how much more good it does in a year’s time, in five years’ time. This isn’t an overnight change.”

Still, about a third of tenants currently aren’t showing up to court, Harvey said, typically leading to default judgments against them. Roughly a quarter of the overall 4,800 cases observed by Jane Place have resulted in default evictions. 

Data gathered by Jane Place in the six months leading up to the pandemic also showed that tenants with lawyers had vastly better outcomes and were less likely to be evicted than those without. Tenants in that period were predominantly Black, with Black women facing the majority of the eviction proceedings observed by the court watchers. Other research by Davida Finger, director of the Loyola University Law Clinic, suggests that evictions in the city tend to occur in lower-quality housing.

Through the “right to counsel” program, tenants have a greater opportunity to tell their side of the story with an attorney by their side, Finger told Verite in an interview.

“Housing issues matter so much to the health of any community and our community that it is incumbent on the city to find a way to to continue to fund the ‘Right to Counsel’ program,” she said.

Charles Maldonado and Katy Reckdahl contributed to this report.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...