A woman with short hair, glasses and a New Orleans Saints shirt stands by the front door of a blue house.
Valerie Jeanmarie poses for a portrait in front of her home on Benefit St. in New Orleans on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

Cans of Glade air freshener were clustered on a table by Valerie Jeanmarie’s front door in early January, her usually neat living room crowded with cardboard boxes as she prepared for a move. Jeanmarie has been living in this blue duplex in Gentilly for less than a year, but after a dispute with her landlord over house repairs, she must move out soon.

The 56-year-old Jeanmarie is a longtime client of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which manages a federally funded program — the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8 — that subsidizes privately owned rental properties for thousands of low-income New Orleanians. 

As she quarreled this past year with her property manager over repairs to her Benefit Street home, Jeanmarie sought help from HANO. She said she needed cracked windows replaced and insulation gaps filled to stymie the flow of lizards and cockroaches crawling into the house. But she struggled to get in touch with the agency, even as the property manager threatened to evict her, she said. Jeanmarie eventually secured the help of a legal aid attorney who coordinated the necessary repairs. The landlord ultimately chose not to renew her lease, which will end this month.

In October, Jeanmarie attended a meeting of the HANO Board of Commissioners, armed with photographic proof of the problems she had spent months trying to get fixed. The resulting scene — Jeanmarie grew frustrated over a perceived slight from HANO Executive Director Evette Hester, prompting police officers to escort her from the boardroom — is central to the evidence marshaled by HANO leadership in their recent efforts to remove Commissioner Sharon Jasper from the agency’s governing board. 

The public conflict has raised important questions about HANO’s role in giving voice to low-income residents seeking safe, adequate affordable housing. It also exposed New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s willingness to cater to the agency’s wishes for orderly board meetings, even though the residents who attended and spoke up at the October meeting were legally entitled to address the board. 

HANO officials first asked Cantrell to remove Jasper, who was appointed in 2018 by Cantrell as one of two tenant representatives, in October. Cantrell attempted to remove Jasper, but she appealed to the New Orleans City Council. In late November, the council reinstated Jasper to the board, saying the mayor had failed to follow procedural rules set by state law. 

In early December, Cantrell filed a second removal notice at the request of the agency. Jasper is once again appealing.  

HANO officials urging Cantrell to terminate Jasper have framed Jeanmarie’s outburst as part of the hostility they say Jasper has encouraged among tenants toward agency staff in recent months. Jasper, who also heads HANO’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Resident Council, and her supporters maintain she is being targeted for her zealous tenant advocacy.

Through a representative, Jasper declined to comment for this article.

Jeanmarie said she encountered Jasper for the first time at the October meeting. Still, Jasper’s voice has resonated with Jeanmarie, who said she sees parallels between her decision to speak out before the board in October and Jasper’s efforts to call attention to the challenges faced by Section 8 tenants.

“She was speaking the truth for us,” Jeanmarie said.

‘It really shouldn’t take an attorney’

Jeanmarie moved into the duplex on Benefit Street in February 2022 from Bywater, where she had spent the past decade or so as a Section 8 tenant before the house she was living in was put up for sale, she said in an interview. She was wary of the possibility of dealing with new management at the Bywater home, and decided she wanted a change of scenery anyway.

As Jeanmarie began settling into her new home, she said she started noticing problems: a cracked window in the living room and another in a bedroom; gaps in the wall and doors; droppings suggesting the presence of roaches and rats. Those were all issues she thought a HANO inspection — mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all Section 8 properties before a new tenant moves in — would have caught.

HANO records for the unit, owned by the New Orleans-based Verrett Investments Company, show it failed an initial inspection in March 2020 for a different tenant over a handful of issues, including a damaged door frame and a broken electrical outlet, though documents indicate those issues were fixed days later. The unit passed a January 2022 inspection, about two weeks before Jeanmarie’s lease began. But she documented the problems she found there as she moved in. Photos she provided from February and March show the cracked windows, as well as other issues, like wear on the wooden back porch.

When Jeanmarie sent photos and raised the issues with the property manager, Paul Van Geffen, he repeatedly suggested she had something to do with the damage, she said.

“I’m scared of cockroaches,” Jeanmarie said. “So why am I gonna put holes in the floor, bust the windowpanes, so to live with roaches? That don’t make sense to me.”

An image provided by Valerie Jeanmarie, dated March 3, 2022, showing a cracked window at her home in Gentilly. Credit: Valerie Jeanmarie

She lined the nooks of the house with sticky traps, taking photos of the lizards and roaches she caught.

As the Section 8 administrator for the city, HANO is responsible for ensuring Section 8 properties are properly maintained. So Jeanmarie contacted the agency for help. She tried getting a HANO caseworker involved, but struggled to get responses to her emails and calls, she said. She also sent over photos to a Section 8 employee, but was told that the photos didn’t match with the ones in the agency’s inspection records, according to Jeanmarie.

Suzanne Whitaker, a HANO spokesperson, said the agency had been in direct contact with Jeanmarie for several months, along with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the landlord, regarding Jeanmarie’s inspection claims.

Whitaker said HANO addressed Jeanmarie’s requests for inspections and repairs by scheduling a special inspection. Jeanmarie then told HANO the special inspection was “no longer needed,” according to Whitaker. Asked when HANO requested the supplemental inspection, Whitaker did not respond.

The unit passed its most recent inspection on Nov. 29.

“HANO supports the choice any [Housing Choice Voucher Program] tenant makes as to their preference in housing, as we continually have and will support the choice of Ms. Jeanmarie should she want to choose another housing location,” Whitaker said in a statement.

In August, Van Geffen gave Jeanmarie an early termination agreement as the two argued over repairs. He threatened to evict her if she didn’t sign it, text messages provided by Jeanmarie show. 

“The landlord did offer to let Ms. Jeanmarie out of her lease should she want to find other housing that she deemed preferable,” Whitaker said.

Van Geffen also told Jeanmarie he had written testimony from repair workers attesting that she had barred them from entering the house — ample evidence for an eviction. Jeanmarie denied this; her attorney, Eva Kalikoff, said she asked for but never received the testimony.

“I’m giving you options to move, I’ve tried to make repairs. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM,” Van Geffen wrote on Aug. 29. “I’ll file the eviction. I’m not bluffing this time. I have the grounds.”

“The problem is you and the landlord don’t like to be told about repairs [that] should have been done before I [moved] in here,” Jeanmarie texted back.

“If you don’t want to sign it, don’t,” Van Geffen wrote. “But I’m filing an eviction Friday if that form isn’t signed. This is more than fair. You don’t want to live in the unit, then this is the way out.”

Van Geffen declined to answer a reporter’s questions about Jeanmarie. 

“There’s been some issues between us and her,” Van Geffen said. “We’d just rather stay out of everything.”

Christine A. Guillory of Verrett Investments, the company that owns the unit, also declined to answer questions from Verite.

Jeanmarie’s caseworker told her to sign the early termination agreement and avoid an eviction on her record, Jeanmarie said. Instead, in June, she found an attorney through the city’s Right to Counsel program, which provides free legal aid for any New Orleans resident facing eviction. 

Jeanmarie’s situation is demonstrative of the difficulties faced by tenants with little power in getting landlords to take repairs seriously, said Kalikoff, her lawyer, who works at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. About a quarter of Kalikoff’s clients are on Section 8, and the vast majority are low-income, she said.

When Kalikoff managed to get in touch with a caseworker, the HANO employee told her that the landlord had expressed frustration about Jeanmarie. 

“The caseworker was very skeptical of everything and not really interested,” Kalikoff said.

In early September, Kalikoff contacted the property owner herself with a list of the needed outstanding repairs. Only then, said Jeanmarie, did the property management company begin working on the bulk of the problems she had pointed out.

“It’s important that tenants be able to advocate for themselves and be taken seriously when they make complaints and raise issues with HANO,” Kalikoff said. “It really shouldn’t take an attorney to negotiate repairs at a property.”

The decision not to renew Jeanmarie’s lease is clearly tied to the dispute, Kalikoff said. But nothing in Louisiana state law — where tenant protections are notoriously weak — or in HANO’s or HUD’s own regulations prevents this, according to Kalikoff.

‘Let me live comfortable’

Jeanmarie has a long history with the housing agency, having grown up in the Florida and Desire housing projects. And in the late 1980s, Jeanmarie recalled, she also worked for a few years for HANO in public housing, cleaning up after the painters and plasterers who got units ready for move-in.

Despite this, she said she doesn’t feel heard by the agency, especially after she was removed from the October meeting. 

Jeanmarie made her way to the boardroom at HANO’s office that day, intending to tell agency officials about her ordeal, and to seek answers about the inspection process. 

At the podium, she launched into an animated account, gesturing toward the HANO staffers and commissioners who faced her. But Jeanmarie said that HANO’s executive director, Hester, turned her head and refused to make eye contact with her, after which Jeanmarie lost her calm and raised her voice.

For Jeanmarie, the agency’s response to Jasper’s recent actions mirrors her own problems with her landlord.

“When we speak up, this is what happens,” Jeanmarie said. 

Now, Jeanmarie is searching for a new home. She has rifled through packets of listings from the HANO office on Touro St., though many of the landlords she calls tell her that the units that have long been rented out or or yanked from the Section 8 program.

She looks for other listings on her phone, skipping over those with application fees. The cost of hiring movers and a U-Haul will already require her to stretch the $841 she gets in monthly disability benefits.

Jeanmarie recently checked out a house in New Orleans East, only to hear days later of a shooting on the same street. The murder of her son, Barry, in 2011 has left Jeanmarie wary of living in neighborhoods where gun violence is commonplace. But the options are few, and as her search drags on, she’s worried she may finally be priced out of the city.

“If I could stay here, it would be OK. ‘Cause there’s no affordable housing. And the landlords knows that,” Jeanmarie said. “I never once said I didn’t want to stay. I said, ‘Let me live comfortable like y’all living comfortable.’ That’s all I asked.”

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Michelle Liu

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...