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Tenants fight gentrification

Published Nov 28, 2005 10:08 PM

KeShawn Harris, a 20-year-old African-American woman, fled the Louisburg Square Apartments in New Orleans with her 2-year-old son days before Hurricane Katrina hit. In a Nov. 15 radio interview with New Orleans Indymedia, she told of returning in October to her apartment in the parish of Terrytown and finding her apartment still intact but being told she was not allowed to live there.

LES Realty Trust, the owner of Louisburg Square Apartments, claimed that it was re-modeling the entire apartment complex, and that KeShawn had to move out. Even when she tried to pay rent for both September and October her landlord refused to take it. A certified nursing assistant with two jobs, working 16-hour days and with a car totaled by the hurricane, Harris was forced to leave her child with relatives so he would not have endure being homeless.

Other Louisburg Square Apartments tenants were told not to worry about paying the rent due to the devastation of the hurricane. But for those who attempted to pay, again the landlord refused to take it. On Oct. 27, LES Realty Trust sent out evictions notices with court appearances for Nov. 2, stating non-payment of rent. This came two days after Gov. Kathleen Blanco lifted the moratorium on evictions.

Under Louisiana law, when a landlord begins eviction proceedings the tenant must appear at a hearing five days later to contest it. If the judge rules in favor of the landlord, the landlord can remove the tenant’s belongings 24 hours later.

Adding insult to injury, the lifting of the ban on evictions on Oct 25 has unleashed an unprecedented number of evictions. In a Nov. 2 Associated Press article, Bill Quigley, director of the Loyola University Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center, put the estimate of evictions that are going through the Louisiana. courts at as many as a 1,000 per day. Landlords have claimed tenants have not contacted them or had abandoned their apartments.

Quigley reported that the evictions in New Orleans are breaking down into roughly three categories: those that are unopposed because tenants are not even aware of them, those for which tenants are justifiably disputing whether they should pay September rent while the city was under a mandatory evacuation order and several feet of water, and those where tenants are willing to pay but landlords still won’t accept rent because they want tenants out.

Bertha Dugas of the Louisburg Square Tenants Association told Workers World that LES Realty Trust is doing everything it can to force the tenants out. “You couldn’t come here to interview me. The management would call the police. I had four cops come to my house because of my being a leader of the tenants association.”

Tenants have experienced harassment such as having their lights cut off, their cars towed and police officers showing up to their doors at night.

On Nov. 2, a court ruled in favor of the tenants forcing the landlord to take tenants’ rent. But on both Nov. 12 and 19, tenants began receiving “Notice to Vacate” letters from LES Realty Trust. Under Louisiana law there is no due process and tenants must leave within 10 days of this notice.

Bertha Dugas, a white working-class woman born and raised in Louisiana, says tenants are planning to fight to stay. “We pay $395 a month here. It would be hard to find another apartment we could afford. If I had the money, I would go buy a place, but I just don’t have the money.”

In other communities in the New Orleans area, tenants are organizing as well. On Oct. 15, tenants held a protest at Forest Park Apartments, a public housing development in Algiers. Holding letters from the management company that they had received only three days prior, tenants were outraged to learn about the shutting down of the property to make repairs in the wake of Katrina. The letter also stated that starting Oct. 16 no one will be allowed to live in the 284-unit complex because of health and safety reasons until the repairs were completed. “All utilities will be turned off, and all gates will be locked on that date,” the letter went on to state.

According to New Orleans Indymedia, Forest Park is not the only publicly funded housing complex whose tenants are facing eviction. Other complexes include Jackson Landing, Fisher Projects and the Iberville Housing Projects in New Orleans. Many residents of these housing projects were previously displaced when their former homes in the St. Thomas housing development in New Orleans were destroyed in 2001 to make way for high-priced condos and a Wal-Mart store.

“It’s gentrification, plain and simple. They want to push the Black and poor populations out,” concluded Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, which is fighting the gentrification of Harlem, N.Y. “In Harlem and in cities around the country the gentrification has been a gradual process, over several years or decades. In New Orleans since the hurricanes it has been wholesale displacement, in one foul swoop.”

Next: Gentrification in Harlem.