People waiting outside of a courtroom at the General Sessions Civil Court are reflected in the glass case holding the day’s proceedings in August. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Ryan Stittiams Willingham was sitting on a long, wooden bench outside the courtroom, waiting for his landlord’s lawyer and property manager to discuss whether they were willing to give him more time. 

If they decided to move forward with eviction, he would have 10 days to move his five kids out of their Cordova home. In the short term, he’d be able to take them to his mom’s house, but Willingham worried about the burdens that would place on both him and her.

“Nobody wants to have five kids in their house,” he said. “Ten days (to move) is a very small window.”

Need rental assistance?

Shelby County only accepts new applications for Emergency Rental Assistance during the first two weeks of the month, except from people who are imminently facing eviction. Click here to find more information about applying, or call 211. 

Willingham, who was almost 12 months behind on rent, had tried to apply for Emergency Rental Assistance — the $46.5 billion federal effort to keep people behind on their rent in their homes — soon after hearing about it, roughly two or three weeks before his court date. 

He didn’t hear anything back, so he phoned the recommended helpline the day before his eviction hearing. A woman called him back that day to walk him through the application process, but he couldn’t complete it without proof of his income — a tricky thing for a self-employed contractor — which left him showing up for court simply hoping for the best. 

The U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is distributing the ERA funds to local communities and providing instructions on how to spend them, advised cities and counties in August to start taking tenants’ word for their income and COVID-related hardship, as opposed to requiring documentation. So far, though, Shelby County has only put this simplification in place for tenants who have no income. 

That’s just one of the obstacles still affecting renters in need of ERA assistance since August when MLK50: Justice through Journalism examined the program’s flaws. The local program has spent almost $25 million helping families with overdue rent and utilities but still has more than $60 million — after recently receiving $30 million from the State of Tennessee — designated for the program that it hasn’t yet managed to distribute.

Changes made to the local ERA program since August have been modest, while eviction becomes a threat for more and more Memphians. From mid-August to late October, the number of eviction filings in Shelby County increased from about 360 per week to about 470, according to the nonprofit Eviction Lab.

Of the combined $343 million of largely unrestricted funds the federal government sent Shelby County and the City of Memphis as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, $171,000 — or .05% — was allocated to the program. A small team of lawyers is still charged with operating the program at the courthouse, though one extra attorney was hired and Shelby County is trying to lighten the lawyers’ load. Renters who qualify for the program continue to wait months for assistance, as the program was closed for new requests from mid-August until Oct. 25 — except from people who could prove they were imminently facing eviction — and is closed again from Nov. 15 until the end of the month. 

Which judge?

The General Sessions Civil Court in downtown Memphis. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

About 20 minutes before sitting on that bench, Willingham was standing in front of Shelby County General Sessions Judge Danielle Mitchell Sims.

His case had been called. His landlord’s lawyer asked for possession of the property. Mitchell Sims turned to ask him a question.

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But instead of asking Willingham if he agreed or disagreed that he owed his landlord money — as is normally done — she asked if he agreed or disagreed with the landlord’s request for possession of his family’s house. 

Willingham said he disagreed, which prompted further discussion with his landlord’s representatives in the hallway and gave him additional time to get help from the ERA program. 

If Mitchell Sims had asked whether he owed the rent, Willingham said he would have answered affirmatively. In that scenario, the eviction would likely have been granted immediately. 

Faith Merriweather, a Neighborhood Preservation Inc. lawyer working on the program, said people are more frequently coming to her in the courthouse’s legal aid office after their hearings not understanding that they’ve agreed to their own eviction by way of a one-word answer.  

“​​People don’t realize when they’re agreeing to that amount what it means and the ramifications,” she said.

In those scenarios, Merriweather tries to get the tenant approved for the funds that same day and asks the landlord’s representatives to reconsider the eviction. 

Worse, many tenants are still being evicted without learning of the ERA, with half of the six judges still not regularly referring eligible tenants to the program, Merriweather said. With this the case, whether or not a renter’s eviction filing turns into a judgement still depends largely on which judge is assigned his or her case. 

Judge Betty Thomas Moore doesn’t understand why some of her fellow General Sessions Court judges don’t regularly refer renters being evicted to the Emergency Rental Assistance program. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Judge Betty Thomas Moore told MLK50 that she asks every tenant who shows up for his or her eviction hearing whether or not he or she has applied for the ERA program. If not, Thomas Moore will reschedule the tenant’s case for two weeks later and instruct them to go to the room where Merriweather and her colleagues sit. She said she doesn’t understand why all her fellow judges don’t do the same.

“Every one of us needs to be disseminating information every time, but some of us just don’t,” said Thomas Moore, the only of the six judges to respond to multiple interview requests by MLK50. “Some judges just feel like it’s crossing the line to give litigants advice that (they) can get this money. … (But), I think that we have an obligation, morally and legally.” 

One way to depend on judges less would be for Merriweather and her colleagues to spend more time in courtrooms, as opposed to an office down the hall. The lawyers had previously tried to attend every eviction hearing but switched strategies at the start of August, when General Sessions court started 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. Though General Sessions has since gone back to operating three courtrooms at a time, the attorneys have stayed in their office instead of attempting to witness each proceeding. 

Merriweather’s boss, Webb Brewer, said he’s hoping the program’s four attorneys will be able to get back to attending hearings soon, thanks to a couple improvements. Neighborhood Preservation Inc. was able to hire an additional lawyer for the program recently, and Shelby County is moving application screeners from an office building to the courthouse, to help bear some of the burden. 

On days she has manned the legal aid office, Merriweather said she spent much of her time helping tenants apply for the ERA program.

“The plan is to have lawyers in the courtroom … (and) working with landlords’ lawyers,” Brewer said. “And (we want to) have screeners and people who are trained for (helping tenants apply) doing that work.”

Brewer said he thinks this change will make a major difference.

Funding improvements

Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin, who oversees the local program, told MLK50 this summer that many of the program’s shortcomings — whether the long wait times for applicants, imperfect outreach or lack of lawyers — are tied to a lack of funding. 

The federal guidelines state that only 10% of the program’s first round of funding and 15% of the second round can be spent on administrative costs. 

“We definitely need more full-time staff,” Young Griffin said at the time. “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.”

The program, though, didn’t end up near the top of Shelby County’s priority list, when it allocated $130 million in American Rescue Plan funds in October. The county’s commissioners and administration agreed on a plan that included $19.1 million for Regional One Health and $3 million for the Mid-South Food Bank. Young Griffin also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of $384,000 for the Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center her division runs and $2 million for helping seniors repair their homes. 

“Everyday I get at least three calls about seniors who need (major repairs to) their homes,” she told commissioners.

The plan did include ​​$171,000 for “eviction prevention program & court navigation expansion.” Young Griffin and Shelby County communications specialist Linda Moore declined to say what this money would be specifically used for or why the ERA program wasn’t given higher priority. 

Young Griffin told commissioners in September, though, that she was expecting additional administrative dollars for the program, using 10% of the $30 million of ERA funds the State of Tennessee was sending her program. She said she’ll use this money to upgrade 20 temporary employees who had been working between 30 and 40 hours per week into full-time employees, which should increase those employees’ capacity to conduct outreach and process applications.

Shelby County’s need to process applications more quickly became especially apparent during the last two months. Because of the backlog of existing applications, the program did not accept new ERA requests from mid-August until Oct. 25 — except from people who could prove they were imminently facing eviction. 

A simplified application that takes tenants at their word could theoretically help clear this backlog. Both Young Griffin and Moore declined to explain why the county still requires renters to document their income even though the federal government has advised communities to take the renters’ word.

Brewer said the program would still prefer to get documentation from tenants when possible, so it’s prepared for an expected future audit of the program by the federal government.
Compared to the nation as a whole, Shelby County has distributed its ERA funds quickly, though not at the pace of gold standard municipalities such as Louisville and San Antonio. By September 30, the local program had distributed about 90% of its first, $28 million round of funding and none of its second round. The roughly 500 municipalities participating in the program had distributed 46% of the first round and 5% of the second by September’s end, with about 90 pacing ahead of the local effort.

 A section of mailboxes for residences at The View at Shelby Farms apartment complex located at 8056 Country Squire Lane are seen. The View at Shelby Farms has filed 198 evictions since March 15, 2020. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

Still waiting

Any of the improvements that Brewer and Young Griffin mentioned could have stopped Willingham from coming within an inch of eviction.

If his initial application for ERA funds hadn’t required so many documents or if it were processed more quickly, it’s unlikely he would have been sitting on a courthouse bench, worrying about his kids. 

When his landlord’s lawyer and property manager finished discussing his case, they told him they were willing to postpone his hearing, so he could finish applying to the ERA program. So, he walked down to the legal aid office and waited a couple of hours for Merriweather’s help finishing his application.

Since that day, Willingham has been waiting. He hasn’t heard anything from Shelby County or Neighborhood Preservation Inc. — his application is likely one of many waiting for someone at Shelby County to review it.

While his landlord appears willing to work with him, Memphis Area Legal Services CEO Cindy Ettingoff said some owners lose patience when a tenant’s application is stuck in processing too long. 

Willingham is due to be back in court near the end of the month, and he’s trying not to worry about his case too much in the meantime.

“Everything will work itself out I’m sure,” he said.

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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