NEW ORLEANS – A flood of legal battles is set to be unleashed today in New Orleans when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco lifts a post-Hurricane Katrina ban on evictions and 8,000 to 10,000 absentee tenants face the losses of their homes and possessions.

Landlords are expected to begin filing eviction requests with the courts immediately. If they’re successful, they can clear out abandoned apartments and move tons of molding, waterlogged belongings to the streets within five to 10 days. In some cases, the landlords alone can make the decision to evict.

Attorneys and volunteers who represent low-income Louisiana residents are expected to gather today in Lafayette for briefings on eviction law and to rally in defense of a possible cascade of tenant grievances.

“That is somebody’s life in there: pictures of their babies and school photos … you would want a chance to save it,” said Laura Tuttle, a lawyer with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

Many residents fled Katrina hurriedly, leaving even their most valuable possessions behind. Some of those people remain scattered throughout the United States nearly two months later.

Now, with city officials eager to begin rebuilding, those tenants’ belongings are keeping precious apartment space out of the market, landlords said. That’s space where imported workers could live.

Landlords “have residents who have not returned, not called or checked in, and their wet, mildewing units are causing havoc for the owners,” said Tammy Esponge, associate executive of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans Inc., who estimated the number of abandoned units in and around the city at 10,000 to 20,000.

Landlords want to help in the rebuilding process but “we can’t do that if we can’t bring in the people,” Esponge said.

David Abbenante, the president of the management group for HRI Properties, said it was a “lose-lose” situation because both landlords and tenants had major property damage. Landlords are “trying to do the right thing” but must get back to business, he said.

The property group gets about 30 calls a day asking for housing – sometimes from contractors who are looking for up to 1,000 units for workers – but the company is stymied. Tenants who lived in about 100 of its Orleans Parish units are unreachable, and HRI Properties can’t rent them to someone else, Abbenante said.

But he said he’d work with the tenants. “The last thing I am going to do is file an eviction on someone,” he said.

The hurricane damage caused major hurdles for residents who want to return to their apartments. And evictions could eliminate any chance of recovering what’s left of their belongings, Tuttle said.

Communications systems were down in the city for weeks and mail service still hasn’t been completely restored, she said. Since the storm, phone numbers have changed and addresses are gone.

“You would be surprised at the number of tenants who don’t know how to get in touch with their landlord in normal times,” Tuttle said.

She said the law was weighted in landlords’ favor but that evictions in New Orleans might lead to changes that gave tenants more power.

Louisiana law requires landlords to file with the courts and receive judges’ rulings before evicting tenants for not paying rent, but if the owner thinks the property was abandoned, the unit can be cleared out without a court order.

Blanco reinstated the law by executive order last week and released a statement that said it was an important step in returning commerce and a “state of normalcy” to the New Orleans area. Her office didn’t return repeated calls asking for comment.

Blanco did, however, extend eviction protection in areas that were affected by Hurricane Rita as well as Katrina, including Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vermilion parishes.

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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