A report by the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimated that between 220,000 and 310,000 households are at risk of eviction in Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock

Local or state health officials may need to step in to stop up to 310,000 Tennessee families from beginning the new year homeless after a national eviction moratorium expires on Dec. 31, legislators and housing experts said during a virtual town hall meeting.

State- or local-level health directives to delay evictions during the coronavirus crisis was one idea discussed during the meeting Wednesday night, organized by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators with participation by health and housing officials. 

There is no guarantee that federal or state governments will come to the rescue, so renters and homeowners who are behind on payments should consider options now and reach out for the limited help available, said Vanessa Bullock, Housing Managing Attorney for West Tennessee Legal Services. 

“It’s really important for anybody who’s having questions about where they are in this process. They need to be worrying about this now.”

Vanessa Bullock, Housing Managing Attorney for West Tennessee Legal Services.

“It’s really important for anybody who’s having questions about where they are in this process” to get help they need immediately, Bullock said. “They need to be worrying about this now.”

Help for tenants, homeowners
and landlords

For rent or mortgage help: http://home901.org/covid-resources

For renters with questions or who need help paying for rent or utilities: https://renterdefender.org/

For homeowners behind on mortgages: https://thda.org/help-for-homeowners/keep-my-tn-home/keep-my-tn-home-reinstatement-only-program

For homeowners who need help with energy bill payments:  https://thda.org/help-for-homeowners/energy-assistance-programs/low-income-home-energy-assistance-program-liheap

For homeowners who need help with home repairs: https://thda.org/help-for-homeowners/need-home-repairs/trlp

Free Tennessee housing search, including low-income housing: http://tnhousingsearch.org/ 

Legal Services:

Memphis Area Legal Services

Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services

The CDC-issued moratorium will expire at the end of this year, leaving up to 40 million people nationally at risk for eviction, according to research by the Aspen Institute. In a September report, the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimated that between 220,000 and 310,000 households are at risk of eviction in Tennessee and that renters owe between $457 million and $599 million in unpaid rent to landlords.

At the Housing Task Force town hall, legislators listened while Bullock; Paul Young, director of the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development; and Doreen Graves, Industry and Governmental Affairs West Tennessee liaison at Tennessee Housing Development Agency, gave dire warnings about the impending housing crisis. 

“Everybody who has used that moratorium to stay housed up until this point is facing a potential eviction come Jan. 1. And without money there’s not a whole lot that can be done,” Bullock said. 

That prompted legislators’ questions on how the state might combat the issue. Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis asked panelists whether the governor has the power to issue an executive order putting a stop to evictions, and suggested the legislature could discuss options during its possible upcoming special session on education in early January. Hardaway also asked whether the state or local health departments could issue moratoriums like the CDC’s, which categorized homelessness during a pandemic as a major health concern. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, signed an executive order in August shielding tenants from eviction through Feb. 1. 

The Shelby County Health Department, state health department, and a spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond Thursday to emailed questions about whether those actions might be considered. 

According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, in 2016, 4.9% of renters faced eviction in Memphis, far above the national average of 2.3%. Economic insecurity from the pandemic has only worsened the housing crisis, said Young. 

According to a University of Memphis report, the poverty rate across the city was about 22% in 2019, though the rate was higher for Black Memphians, about 26%. The national poverty rate last year was 10.5%.

“We really have a fragile state of housing right now. The gap between the haves and have-nots could not be more visible than it is today,” Young said.

Young warned that tenants often don’t have representation in court, leaving them unprepared and unable to fight at an eviction hearing. Graves listed three main concerns she’s heard during the pandemic: Tenants experiencing loss of income leading to an inability to pay rent and mortgage, seniors on fixed income needing repairs of old homes, and people who are currently experiencing homelessness. 

While the state housing department has about $33 million in federal money to distribute, Graves said, that won’t come close to covering the hundreds of millions likely owed in back rent. 

Bullock said that if renters don’t start considering what to do now, there’s likely to be a huge demand for help at the end of the month, causing time and resources to be stretched.

“I just really want to stress the importance of people who are in this situation calling in their local legal aid providers, going to the websites that provide that information and being prepared on the front end,” Bullock said. “Don’t put it off till Christmas; don’t put it off till the beginning of January when you think it’s going to really matter because it really matters now.”

Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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