On Sept. 29 at 10 a.m., Lorraine McCalebb lost her home. McCalebb, who lived in one of the Housing Authority of New Orleans' (HANO) "scattered site" (non-development) public buildings in Algiers, was officially ordered out of her house, where she lived with her daughter and grandchild, following an eviction hearing on Sept. 27 in Judge Mary "K.K." Norman's courtroom in New Orleans Second City Court.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," said a flustered McCalebb after leaving the hearing.
McCalebb, who has been appearing at HANO and City Council meetings to protest her eviction, had a throng of witnesses at her side to dispute the eviction, which Norman had dismissed at an earlier hearing in August after HANO's attorney did not appear on time, according to courtroom statements from Norman and HANO lawyer Tammie Jackson.
McCalebb and Eloise Williams, a longtime community activist who came to court on her behalf, say HANO has mishandled the eviction, citing apparent inconsistencies between McCalebb's August and September court summonses. McCalebb also says that the agency refused to give her additional time to vacate her home in retaliation for speaking publicly about the issues surrounding her eviction. HANO officials deny both allegations.
McCalebb had been living in her current home and a nearby scattered site building since 2007 at a rental rate of $50 per month. When her daughter got a job last March, she did not immediately report the new income to the agency. When she did report it in June, McCalebb signed a new lease at a rate of $329 per month, retroactively payable from April.
Soon after signing the lease, though, McCalebb claims she discovered an error. HANO, she says, was counting as income $131 per month she receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development utility payment reimbursements. That error is, she says, why she did not pay her rent.
In August, she received an eviction notice from HANO at the $329 rate for a total of $1,341 for April through July (an average of $335 per month, presumably including penalties). McCalebb's court date was Aug. 16, but Norman dismissed it when HANO attorney Tammie Jackson failed to appear on time. Then, in September, HANO appears to have admitted its error, albeit in the form of another eviction notice rather than what McCalebb was hoping for — an offer to work out a payment plan at the new, correct rent. The notice was now amended to $198 (which is $329 minus $131, the amount of McCalebb's utility reimbursement) for April through August, a total of $1,433 (an average of $286 per month, presumably including penalties).
Asked why HANO was demanding another immediate eviction despite the fact its own court filing appeared to demonstrate that HANO had realized its mistake, agency spokeswoman Lesley Eugene said Judge Norman did not see it that way. "We can't discuss anything in this case because she has a confidentiality clause in her contract with HANO," Eugene told Gambit.
"This is the same thing as any rental contract between any tenant and any private landlord," Eugene added. "Ms. McCalebb had a responsibility to pay her rent and properly report her income. She did not do that." She also didn't accept the agency's help, Eugene said. After McCalebb attended HANO Board of Commissioners meetings in August and September, looking for help, HANO Administrative Receiver David Gilmore advised she meet with a member of the agency's senior staff to discuss her problem and seek legal representation. "It's my understanding she did neither," Eugene said.
During her hearing, Jackson initially wanted to give McCalebb only 24 hours to vacate, even as one of McCalebb's witnesses, Ivan Williams, offered to pay the delinquent amount (more than $1,600) out of his own pocket if she could be allowed to remain in her home for a few more weeks. Jackson refused, saying that "Ms. McCalebb has shown up at board meetings and seriously misrepresented me and HANO."
Eugene, speaking on Jackson's behalf, denied that statement, or at the very least denied that the statement was given as a justification for HANO's actions.
Shortly after the court order, McCalebb contacted U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who put her in contact with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General (HUD OIG). HUD OIG investigates allegations of fraud and mismanagement in the federal department as well as local housing agencies, like HANO, that HUD oversees.
Bobby Anderson, special agent-in-charge of the New Orleans HUD OIG, said HUD is looking at McCalebb's complaint, though, he added, HUD OIG's interview with McCalebb didn't appear to turn up any red flags.
Meanwhile, on the day of the eviction, a U-Haul stood in front of McCalebb's now-former house. As she carefully smoothed out a dress from a small pile of clothes and hung it for the move, McCalebb said she did not yet know where she would be staying that night. "Right now I'm just trying to get this all out of here so I can get it into storage," she said. As of Sept. 30, McCalebb was staying with another family member, waiting to hear her fate.