Dec. 31 marks the end of the nationwide eviction moratorium sparked by an effort to help those whose financial situations were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Renters who missed payments over the past seven months will owe a lump sum to landlords by the deadline, or face possible eviction in January.
“Housing in Memphis and our country is in a fragile state,” said Paul Young, director of the Memphis Housing & Community Development Office (HCD). “A lot of individuals and families are falling behind on rent and mortgage payments.”
On Dec 9, Young addressed the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus during a virtual meeting hosted by Rep. Jesse Chism (D-Memphis).
State legislators drew advice from housing and legal experts to mitigate a looming crisis, while hoping for Congress to pass a new stimulus bill.
Mortgage payers have abundant relief options. But resources for renters are limited.
For Memphis, housing problems existed long before the pandemic.
The city leads the nation in evictions, averaging 2,500 to 3,000 per month.
Memphis also has a 38,000-unit affordable housing shortage.
Economic impacts of COVID-19 only underscored the crisis and made it worse.
Young pointed legislators to relief options at: http://home901.org/covid-resources.
Citizens can apply for rental and mortgage assistance on the site, or take advantage of the Eviction Settlement Program (ESP).
Many tenants who go before the courts are unrepresented and don’t know their legal rights, giving landlords an advantage, according to Young.
ESP provides free legal representation to tenants and pays landlords directly to help them recoup losses.
ESP works in partnership with Memphis Area Legal Services, University of Memphis and Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.
HCD is seeking public and private funding to extend ESP beyond Dec. 31.
Doreen Graves, West Tennessee liaison for Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA), said statewide housing troubles caused by COVID-19 include:
- Failure to pay rent or a mortgage due to loss of income.
- Inability for seniors on fixed incomes to cover repairs in older homes.
- Evictions resulting in homelessness.
Graves discussed relief options, such as the reinstated Hardest Hit fund, which provides an interest-free loan to homeowners behind on mortgage payments.
Borrowers can pay their mortgage, property taxes and insurance while seeking a job or training for new work.
The Emergency Solutions Grant – a $33 million fund – covers housing for citizens who become homeless due to the pandemic.
Graves recommended additional resources, including:
- Convergence Memphis, a program to increase Black homeownership.
- eHome America, an online tool for housing education, foreclosure prevention and money management.
- org, a chat system for tenants to understand their legal rights.
- THDA programs supporting home repairs and energy efficient upgrades for low-income citizens.
“We stand in the middle of unprecedented times,” Graves said. “The only way to fight is through collaboration.”
Vanessa Bullock, housing managing attorney for West Tennessee Legal Services, said statewide housing problems have long existed, but intensified with COVID-19.
Her current concern is legal representation for tenants.
“Tenants have rights and legislators should refer tenants to their local legal services agency to make sure all rules are followed,” Bullock said.
Bullock said Tennessee’s four legal services agencies help greatly when tenants are aware of the resource.
“Tenants don’t know to come to us … some feel they have to pay money, but the legal representation is free.”
Bullock warned that neither tenants nor landlords can bypass the judicial process, but “people could be on the streets by the end of January if landlords aren’t paid in full.”
Landlords, both federally subsidized and private, have had to comply with the moratorium set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some small-scale landlords fear financial loss.
Landlords seeking assistance or free legal advice should contact the Help for Tennessee Hotline at 1-844-435-7486, which is manned by volunteer attorneys.
Bullock advised tenants facing eviction not to put off obtaining legal representation or alternative housing.
A shortage of affordable housing stock can be troublesome, she said, but legal services agencies can provide limited housing search tools.
In West Tennessee, Bullock noted witnessing small-scale landlords selling properties to out-of-state, absentee landlords who are now “running slums.”
This can lead to deteriorated housing stock, “but a lot can be done if the money is there to create housing programs that can be replicated.”
State Rep. G. A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) asked about possible legislative actions to minimize a housing calamity.
Bullock said the courts could order a temporary hold on issuing eviction writs, especially if judges knew the date federal aid would arrive. She stressed that to defeat the problem, federal aid is crucial.
The THDA’s Graves says THDA has funds, but not enough to offset the estimated $457 million to $599 million in unpaid rents in Tennessee since COVID-19 began.
As a step towards relief, state legislators will urge Tennessee’s Congressional to support stimulus funding.
Hardaway made a sobering comment about housing issues in Memphis and the nation.
“Until the health crisis is alleviated, the housing crisis may get worse,” he warned.
Housing and Eviction Relief Resources
Memphis Tenants and Homeowners – For rent or mortgage assistance, visit: http://home901.org/covid-resources
Memphis Tenants – For free legal representation, call 901-524-1183
Memphis Black Homeownership – For resources, visit: https://www.mba.org/advocacy-and-policy/convergence/convergence-memphis
Tennessee Housing Development Agency – For senior and low-income resources, visit: https://thda.org
Tennessee Landlords – For assistance and free legal advice, call 844-435-7486
Homebuyer Education and Foreclosure Prevention – Visit: https://www.ehomeamerica.org
Legal Rights for Renters – Visit: https://renterdefender.org
Public Officials: For eviction data and help forming a relief plan, visit: http://evictionlab.org