On July 1, New Orleans joined more than 40 states that protect tenants in good standing who report safety violations against their landlords, when an anti-retaliatory measure — part of the “Healthy Homes” ordinance passed last fall — went into effect. 

Under the new city law, renters are required to notify their landlords about a health or safety concern before issuing a complaint to the city to request an inspection. Such complaints are considered “protected activity,” meaning landlords cannot retaliate against their tenants for making them. 

Hannah Adams, a staff attorney for the free legal aid group Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that anyone can report issues to the city — advocates and passerbyers can make complaints on the behalf of tenants. 

The newly enacted measure protects tenants not only from evictions, but from other retaliatory actions, such as rent increases or service decreases. 

“There is no protection against retaliatory eviction currently under any state law, so this really fills a gap where the state Legislature hasn’t spoken,” Adams said. “I think it will potentially allow tenants to advocate for themselves in a way that they might have been too scared to do before.” 

Adams described situations where tenants were too afraid to ask for repairs or report safety code violations, even when facing serious health or safety issues. “They’d rather not report it and live without air conditioning in 90-degree weather or live with a giant hole in their ceiling than end up on the street.” 

As Louisiana leases typically roll over to month-to-month arrangements after the first year, Adams said that unless tenants live in subsidized properties, which operate under federal standards and inspection requirements, they previously had  zero protections against a retaliatory non-renewal for no cause at the end of the lease.” She noted that around half of the tenants she works with are under month-to-month leases. 

“A tenant can call about their broken air conditioning on July 15 and receive a 10 day notice on July 20 that they need to move by August 1 for no reason at all,” Adams said. Prior to the law’s enactment, tenants were evicted in ways that  were “clearly retaliatory,” but tenants could not prove it in court, she said. 

The new law — which covers rental arrangements under a written lease or oral agreement — could be “a total game changer,” Adams said, because it creates a “presumption of retaliation” when a landlord chooses not to renew a tenant’s lease within six months of the tenant making a complaint — to the landlord, to the city, to the media — about a code violation in their home. Landlords can now only move forward with an eviction if they have a non-retaliatory reason for their decision. 

A ‘watered-down’ version of Healthy Homes law

The ordinance only protects tenants in good standing with their lease. The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, which has criticized the version of the law that passed last year, said in a press release that “a family living with a dangerous health or safety violation, who has fallen even a dollar short or a day late on rent, will not be protected from eviction.” 

The anti-retaliation measure is the only part of the Healthy Homes Ordinance currently in effect. Though the full ordinance was originally slated to take effect this summer, the City Council in June voted to delay the ordinance’s other provisions, including requiring landlords to register their properties with the city and self-attest that their properties meet a basic health and safety standard, including working air conditioning for high temperatures. 

Registration for large buildings with more than 50 units will begin in January 2024, while buildings with only 1-3 units (in which the majority of New Orleans renters live) will not start until January 2025. Despite these delays, Adams added that the registration requirement will allow the city to collect new data which she said “can only help tenants.” 

The ordinance itself is a “watered-down version” of what many advocates envisioned for the city, said Cashauna Hill, the executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center

When the ordinance passed last fall, the City Council removed a provision that would have required the Department of Safety and Permits to periodically inspect many buildings around the city, a measure that Hill said “was the goal and remains the goal of advocates and renters across the city.” She said the ordinance that passed is a “far cry from the ordinance that the City Council had every opportunity to pass.” 

While the ordinance protects tenants from retaliatory actions, the burden still falls on tenants to first report safety and health concerns “If the council had chosen to pass the Healthy Homes Ordinance that had been contemplated and demanded for over a decade, then the burden of maintaining safe conditions would’ve been completely removed from the renter and placed solely on the property owner,” Hill said. Under the plan pushed by housing advocates, all property owners providing rental housing would have had to not only register their units with the city, but submit the units to regular inspections. 

New Orleans City Councilmember JP Morrell, the sponsor of the ordinance, did not respond to Verite’s requests for comment by publication time. 

Ultimately, Hill said the strength of the anti-retaliation measure depends on whether eviction court judges follow the law. “Renters can still have an eviction filed against them that may be retaliatory. They have to reach out and engage an attorney, show up to court with an attorney and hope that a retaliatory eviction will be stopped,” she said. “That’s the way these protections will work and so much remains to be seen about how these protections will actually play out in tenants’ lives.” 

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...