An official in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said the ‘right to counsel’ program will be funded with federal dollars. Credit: Charles Maldonado/Verite News

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration will continue to fund a program offering free legal services to every New Orleans resident in eviction court, using federal grant money, for the next budget year, a New Orleans city official has confirmed.

The city’s Office of Community Development will allocate $2 million in federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds to the “right to counsel” program — which provides free legal assistance to people facing eviction — Tyra Johnson Brown, the office’s director of housing, told Verite. 

The program for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents had been in question because, as Verite reported last week and Brown confirmed Friday, the planned allocation isn’t documented in the mayor’s proposed 2023 budget. And even with the announcement, some housing advocates are concerned that, under the plan, the program will be funded with federal one-time money that will not be available in subsequent years. 

Brown told Southeast Louisiana Legal Services — the legal aid group contracted by the city to run the program — that the program would be covered with a mix of Emergency Rental Assistance Program dollars and American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for local government assistance, according to Elizabeth Harvey, an attorney with the group.

In December of last year, the New Orleans City Council allocated $2 million to pay for the program in 2022, four times what Cantrell originally proposed for a right to counsel pilot. And in May, the council passed an ordinance making it a permanent city program. 

Council President Helena Moreno sponsored that ordinance. Last week — after a review confirmed that the funding was missing from Cantrell’s proposed budget — her chief of staff, Andrew Tuozzolo, said Moreno would offer an amendment to pay for the program through the city’s general fund, drawing on unspent city money from the prior year.  

It is not clear if Moreno still plans to offer the amendment now that Brown has announced the administration’s plans to use federal dollars to pay for it next year. Moreno’s office declined to comment for this article.

Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, a partner in the right to counsel program, said that she was happy the Cantrell administration would pay for the program next year. But she raised concerns about the plan to use one-time federal dollars, rather than recurring city revenues, to fund  it.

“The Right to Counsel program has been an essential lifeline to hundreds of families since it began earlier this year and must be part of any comprehensive strategy to address homelessness,” Hill said. “We’re glad to see that the administration is planning to fully fund the program again for 2023, but we would urge it and the City Council to begin thinking about the need to fund essential housing programs like this with recurring general fund dollars, not just one-time federal money.” 

New Orleans has received a total of $105 million in rental assistance funding from the U.S. Treasury so far, Brown said during a budget hearing before the New Orleans City Council last week. The city has so far spent $81 million on rental assistance, utilities assistance and eviction prevention, she said.

The city also has $194 million left to spend in federal pandemic relief aid, according to a budget presentation. That money was not included in the main budget proposal, though the American Rescue Plan Act  spending plan is expected to go to the City Council for a vote after the 2023 budget is passed.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created to help cover back rent and utility payments, rather than legal services. But Brown cited a document released by the U.S. Treasury allowing her to use a portion of the money for eviction prevention services for very low-income families.

The city’s “right to counsel” program, which was funded for the first time in January, provides tenants in eviction court with free lawyers, as well as offering other services, including holding “know your rights” events, resolving other landlord-tenant disputes before they reach the courthouse. It has served 1,200 people so far in its first year of existence, according to data provided by Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, which monitors the city’s eviction courts. 

A greater percentage of tenants now have representation in eviction court and eviction judgments have declined in the program’s first year compared to before the pandemic, according to data gathered by Jane Place. 

The program also provides referrals to the city’s emergency rental assistance program, which began in October limiting the cash assistance it provides only to residents facing eviction in court. That change was made to address a spike in eviction filings following the end of a federal eviction moratorium last year, Brown said.

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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...