Susie Mitchell didn’t get much farther than the doorway of the Shelby County General Sessions courtroom on Aug. 10, when her eviction case was scheduled to be heard. Renters and property managers filled the wooden benches, leaving nowhere for her and her mother to sit, much less to stay socially distant.
The Mitchells probably wouldn’t have been at court at all had they not spent about $1,000 helping to bury four relatives over the past year. Between that and an unexplained decrease in her mother’s monthly disability check, the two of them were about six months behind on rent at their Whitehaven two-bedroom apartment.
Like almost all defendants in Shelby County facing eviction, the Mitchells had no attorney. After a short discussion with the bailiff, they thought he wanted them to wait on a hallway bench until he came to get them.
He didn’t return, and after about an hour, they reentered the courtroom, where Mitchell asked an attorney about the case. She learned that she had missed her hearing – her chance to defend herself — but not that the eviction had been granted.
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Back in the hallway, frustrated and prepared to head home, Mitchell, 42, and her mom, Shirley, 65, noticed that some people who’d just come from the same courtroom were walking into a room nearby. The Mitchells followed and waited their turn to meet Kayla Billingsley.
Billingsley, who’s been a lawyer for less than a year, helps lead the local effort to use federal Emergency Rental Assistance dollars to keep people such as Mitchell in their homes. The U.S. government gave $59 million in ERA directly to the city of Memphis and Shelby County, which will get at least $30 million from the federal funds the State of Tennessee received.
Since March, the city and the county have spent $15.4 million helping families with past-due utility bills but mostly overdue rent, including about 1,000 households facing eviction.
But those involved know the assistance system is flawed, allowing too many people who qualify for help to slip through the cracks just as the pace of evictions picks up. The program’s weaknesses include an underfunded outreach effort and an office staff that’s stretched too thin. There are too few attorneys to guide tenants through the process, and the available attorneys are eager but hampered by a lack of experience. And whether renters learn that financial aid is available is largely left up to chance.
Meanwhile, Shelby County is one of just 250 counties nationwide where at least 1 in 5 households were behind on rent as of early July, according to one analysis.
“We’ve got to figure out how to expand our capacity to do this,” said Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin, who oversees the local effort. “We reacted very quickly (when we were awarded funds) in March. But we didn’t spend time on what structure is going to be most sustainable.”
When she’s not swamped by keeping the program running and her other responsibilities, Young Griffin works on that structure, which she hopes will include more full-time staff, more outreach and more lawyers.
But these improvements depend on additional funding since most of the federal dollars must go toward unpaid bills. Once she has time to come up with a specific request, Young Griffin plans to ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for some of the $182 million it received as part of the American Rescue Plan.
Unless the request is added to Monday’s agenda, the earliest the county commission could grant support would be at its Sept. 13 meeting, which means it will likely be months before Young Griffin gets the help she needs.
“(The ERA funding alone) is not going to provide us the robust type of program that we need to really meet the need,” she said.
How the program works — and doesn’t
Billingsley and Young Griffin are racing against time.
While eviction judgments are well below their 2019 pace, they’re rising quickly. In July, an appeals court ruled that the recent extension of the federal eviction moratorium doesn’t apply in Tennessee. And at the start of August, General Sessions court returned to operating six courtrooms five days per week, after operating three for three days per week for most of the year as a COVID-19 precaution.
Local leaders are in a bind: While they have plenty of money to help people, they don’t have nearly the capacity needed to get it quickly to the thousands in need.
The federal guidelines state that only 10% of the program’s initial $28 million allotment and 15% of the second $31 million round can be spent on administrative costs. With this, Young Griffin has assembled a team of roughly 30 employees, only a dozen of whom are working on it full-time.
It’s not enough, Young Griffin said, especially because she’ll have to keep the program staffed until it expires at the end of 2025.
“We definitely need more full-time staff,” Young Griffin said. “It is extremely tight to do all the things that we’re trying to do. People are like, ‘Do more outreach. Make sure you have more attorneys.’ (But) it’s a lot.”
Along with seeking county funds, Young Griffin said her team has looked at other government and philanthropic funding sources. But finding additional grants and keeping up with their reporting requirements would take resources she’s reluctant to spare.
“One thing we’re trying to think about is how do we leverage other grants out there … but we have to do that at the same time you serve the people coming in the door,” she said.
To reach people like Mitchell, Young Griffin’s staff and partner agencies have sought media coverage, set up information tables at libraries, and done some door-to-door outreach at apartment complexes.
But these labor-intensive efforts don’t always pay off, sometimes only generating a couple of applications. An advertising campaign might help, but there’s no room in the budget.
They’ve also held a few Zoom meetings for landlords. It is, after all, the property owners and managers who directly receive the past-due rent in the large majority of cases, and they can help their tenants get signed up.
Some landlords, such as ALCO Management — one of the city’s largest owners of low-income housing — have been proactive in signing dozens of tenants up for the program. ALCO senior vice president Dana Patterson said her company has found the program quite easy to use and has strongly encouraged tenants to apply, with one property manager even going door-to-door with her laptop to help them.
Most landlords, though, aren’t knocking on tenants’ doors. To receive the money, they have to agree not to file for eviction during the following two months and to waive all late fees. Both of these reasons have kept numerous landlords away, said Billingsley.
Patterson said some of her colleagues aren’t interested because they think their tenants stopped paying rent simply because they knew they couldn’t be forced out during the eviction moratorium. Others knew their tenants were unemployed and didn’t think it made sense to allow them to stay if they weren’t going to be able to pay their rent anytime soon.
As of mid-June, 155 landlords hadn’t accepted the ERA money offered, Young Griffin said. When this happens, the program can give the money directly to tenants to help them find new housing.
The program recently transitioned to a new software Young Griffin said has made data collection much easier. Billingsley, though, said it has made the process more complicated for tenants, who have been leaving more applications incomplete.
Even if the county found better software, more landlords spread the word to tenants, door-to-door outreach expanded, and the city and county funded a marketing campaign, there’s yet another hurdle: Young Griffin’s staff already doesn’t have the capacity to process as many applications as are coming in the door.
For that reason, applications are only open for the first two weeks of any month on Home901.org — where most applications are submitted, although tenants without Internet access can apply by phone. The rest of the month is used to process paperwork and to work with tenants and landlords.
Overall, Young Griffin is proud of what her team has been able to accomplish. By the end of June, states and municipalities across the nation had distributed just 12% of the $25 billion originally allocated for the program, with allocation percentages for different counties varying widely, according to U.S. Department of the Treasury data. Davidson County had distributed 15% of its initial allotment, Little Rock’s Pulaski County had spent 9%, and Louisville’s Jefferson County was already at 100%. Shelby County, meanwhile, sat at 39% — better than most but far from the gold standard.
“I’m excited because (we’ve received) a lot of money to help a lot of people. But like, I’m a 90s rap girl and ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems,’ right? Because it’s just a lot,” Young Griffin said.
‘It’s just crazy’
During eviction cases, some of the landlords’ lawyers talk like auctioneers, standing in the middle of a quiet, wood-paneled courtroom. Frequent visitors to the court, they know the judges well and share a common language that helps keep cases moving quickly.
The attorneys — often the few white men in a room of Black defendants — rattle off facts for the property manager on the witness stand to confirm: address, the amount of rent owed, the amount once late fees are added.
“Yes. … Yes. … Yes,” the manager replies.
The judge then asks the tenant — if present — one question: “Do you agree or disagree?”
If the answer is “agree,” that will probably be all the tenant says other than confirming their name. They won’t be given a chance to say, “That’s the amount I owe, but here are the extenuating circumstances.”
Though it isn’t made clear to defendants ahead of time, “agree” means the judge will award the judgment the landlord’s lawyer asks for: typically, the right to take possession of the property and collect back rent, late fees and attorney fees.
“My first couple weeks in here, I couldn’t understand what the landlord attorneys were saying,” said Billingsley. “It’s just crazy the way things move in eviction court.”
Billingsley’s first time in eviction court wasn’t long ago. After passing the bar exam in October, the nonprofit Neighborhood Preservation Inc. hired her to help lead its rental assistance work alongside the city, county and Memphis Area Legal Services.
While relatively inexperienced, Billingsley is confident when in the courtroom and when speaking to tenants outside of it. Using Excel spreadsheets, she juggles hundreds of cases and dozens of landlords while texting status updates to tenants.
But she’s clearly overworked: When her coworker and grandmother died in late July and early August, she could barely take time to grieve for either, knowing there were tenants who needed her help as soon as possible.
“It’s really hard to stop to do anything,” Billingsley said. “When you’re dealing with this volume (of evictions), it’s soul crushing.”
The legal aspects of the work are primarily completed by Billingsley, another fresh-from-law-school attorney at NPI, and two veteran attorneys from MALS, all women. For much of the spring and summer, the team sat in on most eviction hearings. While there, they made sure landlords who’d accepted ERA money weren’t still seeking evictions. When a tenant had applied for ERA help, they asked judges to delay the case.
Four attorneys could almost manage to monitor the three courtrooms open this early spring and summer, but now all six courtrooms are running. The lawyers have too much other work to sit in court all day, so now a single lawyer runs a help desk at the courthouse, hoping the more helpful judges send struggling tenants her way.
On Friday, Billingsley asked county officials, including Young Griffin, if they could hire a couple more lawyers to help her and to staff a pair of helplines — one for tenants and one for landlords — so she wouldn’t have to spend hours guiding them through the process or sending them updates. Currently, tenants and landlords can call 211 for help, but the people answering those calls aren’t trained specifically to handle them. Billingsley said officials haven’t committed to either fix.
Without help, Billingsley knows her team will burn out and people will continue to fall through the cracks.
“Everything is on fire, but it’s okay,” Billingsley said.
For tenants on the verge of losing their homes, the stakes are high. An eviction can ruin a person’s credit record, not to mention the emotional upheaval.
Yet luck plays an outsized role in which tenants receive aid.
Susie Mitchell, who is on disability, wasn’t fortunate enough to have been part of the program’s outreach efforts or to have a proactive landlord, but she did catch a break at the courthouse.
While all six general sessions court judges are familiar with the program, three regularly inform renters about the help available to them, Billingsley said. Mitchell’s case happened to land in Division 3, before Judge Danielle Mitchell-Sims, who does refer defendants to Billingsley, which is why Mitchell recognized people from her courtroom heading toward the room Billingsley was borrowing from MALS.
And, while many renters showed up with just the court notice in hand, Mitchell happened to bring a purse full of paperwork, which allowed Billingsley to start the application then and there.
When Mitchell arrived home from court, she walked into an apartment with little room to walk around.
Boxes and trash bags covered one of her couches and much of the floor, holding almost everything she owned.
She had started packing a week beforehand, not knowing how long she’d have if the judge ruled against her. She couldn’t bear the thought of all her possessions — from a painting of the Bible to the toys she has for when her nieces and nephews stop by — on the street.
If evicted, Mitchell had a plan. She’d store her belongings with several family members. Her mother would move into her sister’s one-bedroom apartment. Mitchell would sleep in her truck.
But that won’t be necessary, as Mitchell was lucky once again. After her hearing, her apartment manager had told her she could stay if the program approved her in the next week and a half.
Four days before the deadline, Mitchell received a text from Billingsley, who had fast-tracked the application.
“Your landlord agreed to let us pay your rent through September,” the text said.
Mitchell started shouting and crying.
“Thank you so so much. I’m crying tears of joy,” she responded.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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