NEW ORLEANS -- All over this city, from brick apartment complexes in the east to crumbling stucco low-rises in the center, constables have been busy tacking eviction notices to often-empty apartments.
Landlords, many of them starved for rent and fearing foreclosure, have been trying to evict tenants who escaped New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And that has pitted them against jobless and cash-poor tenants in a fierce race for survival that began playing out yesterday in the city's only functional civil courthouse.
Many tenants either cannot pay rent or cannot get home - no small matter in a city where low-income renters are in the majority. And with as much as a fifth of the rental stock destroyed, demand is high and surviving apartment complexes have waiting lists. That creates a temptation for landlords who think they might make more money.
After a moratorium on evictions imposed by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco expired 10 days ago, the landlords in the city filed nearly 700 post-Katrina eviction notices. In some cases, they logged as many notices in a day as court clerks usually see in a month.
The resulting struggles were on full view yesterday in the old Algiers courthouse across the Mississippi River from downtown, as the first formal eviction hearings began. Tenants complained that the broken-down post office - which is just getting around to delivering mail from late August - had failed to deliver their paychecks or accused landlords of being money-hungry. Property owners, for their part, said they needed rental income to make their mortgage payments; some said their buildings were so damaged that all leases were void.
At most of the hearings, the tenants did not show up, a testament to the city's emptiness. And some of those who did trek to the turreted little 19th-century courthouse did not get good news from the judge.
Robert Wells, a construction worker and part-time French Quarter waiter, was given 48 hours to clear out of his basement apartment in the Algiers Point neighborhood after not paying his October or November rent of $525. He insisted his family was sending him money and muttered afterward that his landlord was "price gouging."
During Wells' hearing, City Court Judge Mary Norman pointedly noted that the landlord, Tony Carter, would have a long waiting list of tenants if the eviction was successful. But she also asked for commentary about Wells from the assembled landlords sitting in the courtroom, and one of them called out, "Your honor, he would not be considered a good tenant."
Afterward, Carter acknowledged that someone else was waiting for the apartment, but he insisted: "I'm not looking to gouge anybody. I've lost 90 percent of my tenants."
Housing experts say many landlords here are not trying to gouge. "It's a real conundrum," said James Perry of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "The landlords make their money off renters, and renters, not unreasonably, object to paying rent when they are not even there."
The laggard mail and New Orleans' chronically dysfunctional public housing authority - a big source of rent for private landlords here through subsidized Section 8 vouchers - were oft-blamed yesterday, but that was of little help to tenants.
In the courtroom, Norman gave evicted tenants the telephone numbers for the Salvation Army, Covenant House and other shelters.
"No one left here today being put out on the street," she said afterward in an interview in her office overlooking the river. "That is my goal as a judge."
She added, "Some people even tease me and call me the social service judge."