Even before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated so many people in New Orleans and around the world, Ronda Farve sometimes took to bathing her two young children in the backyard of her rented apartment in the city’s Treme neighborhood because of failing plumbing that she says went unaddressed by her landlord despite repeated attempts to get it fixed.
After the pandemic hit, Farve, 29, lost her job as a prep cook at a local restaurant, and the family’s tenuous situation got even worse. Unable to pay rent, Farve began receiving eviction notices. And despite the apartment’s substandard conditions (which her landlord disputed), she began fighting to stay because she and her kids had no other safe place to go.
“My life right now is in two people’s hands: It’s in the government’s hands, it’s in my landlord’s hands,” says Farve in a new documentary for TIME after she received an eviction notice in September. “[I’m] stressed out. I barely eat.”
For six months, filmmaker Kathleen Flynn followed the struggles of two single moms in New Orleans whose uncertain housing situations reflect what is happening around the country. The dire current reality is especially impacting women of color, who are often struggling to hold on to a safe place to live while also tending to their children’s most basic needs.
In New Orleans East, Dominique King says her landlord didn’t fix the air conditioning unit that left her apartment stiflingly hot. Her newborn baby wouldn’t eat, and began breaking into heat rashes. “I woke up one morning, he barely could open his eyes. It was just bumps, heat rashes everywhere on him.”
After rushing him to the hospital twice, she could no longer follow the city’s strict stay-at-home orders. King, 36, began staying with family and friends, although she worried that she was putting herself and her baby at increased risk of exposure to the virus. Sometimes she paid for motel rooms with working air conditioning units, but she’d lost her job in events planning so she soon ran out of money to pay for those rooms—and then became unable to pay rent.
The COVID-19 Eviction-Defense Project has estimated that at least a quarter of U.S. renters could be pushed out of apartments—impacting up to 23 million Americans. And an analysis from the National Women’s Law Project found that Black women have been twice as likely to be behind on rent as white renters during the pandemic, putting them at increased risk for homelessness.
In New Orleans, Black women have long been hard hit by evictions, says Frank Southall of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly. “We know that 57% of everyone being evicted [before the pandemic] were Black women. Were mothers, were sisters. They were aunts, they were grandmothers.”
Although experts tried to create a more stable housing environment after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University gave Louisiana a zero out of five stars rating for its COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. Southhall also says Louisiana ranks very poorly among states for tenant protections. “What that’s led to is people just being evicted left and right, much more quicker compared to a lot of parts of the country.
Another recent study conducted by researchers at several top U.S. universities has shown that evictions during the pandemic may have caused over 10,000 deaths. Although the CDC has issued a moratorium on evictions, it is clear that displacement is still happening and will escalate if and when the moratorium is lifted.
Maxwell Ciardullo of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center says he knows of many tenants who are pushed out without a formal eviction, which leads him and many fair housing advocates to believe that eviction rates may be twice as high as the already shocking numbers. Ciardullo says he has observed that those displaced households are more likely to be infected by the coronavirus, and that research shows the instability can negatively impact people’s physical and mental health, as well as school performance.
Housing advocates in New Orleans have called for several solutions—some more radical than others—including halting eviction court, canceling rent and mortgages and paying off debt to banks and landlords directly.
The struggle is a grim echo of life after Hurricane Katrina, when Black women and families were slower to recover and permanently fled New Orleans in droves. For those who returned, many are reliving the trauma of housing instability, this time with the added risk of a deadly virus. Further complicating matters is that while there are countless stories of delinquent landlords who are failing their tenants in a time of crisis, many well-meaning small landlords are also struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, and are caught between wanting to help vulnerable tenants and paying their own bills.
For the two young women profiled in this documentary, the sickness and job losses of the last year have compounded existing anxieties that linger 15 years after they were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. As the city was battered by evacuation threats in 2020, during the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, King told TIME this past year has felt hauntingly similar to 2005: “It was just a different disaster.”