The slim 22-year-old with shoulder-length curly hair limped through the courthouse hallway with a large knee brace.
Alynnei Neal, a cleaner of commercial buildings, had injured her knee mopping floors, but that was the least of her worries that March day. Her California-based landlord had filed an eviction against her, and she was trying to avoid losing her home.
Neal fell behind on rent after her car died and she started paying coworkers for rides to work.
She tried applying for Emergency Rental Assistance — the $46.5 billion federal program to keep people behind on their rent in their homes — through home901.org and by calling any number she could find associated with the local portion of the program. But she hadn’t had any luck.
So Neal came to court to participate in one of the hundreds of eviction cases happening that day.
In Shelby County, eviction filings have risen steadily over the last year, recently reaching pre-pandemic levels. Both here and across the country, eviction filings had dropped significantly during the pandemic, thanks to eviction moratoriums, the ERA program and other pandemic-inspired government assistance programs, such as expanded unemployment insurance.
As evictions now accelerate, Memphis and Shelby County have about $80 million of ERA funds to use. They spent more than $50 million helping over 15,000 households in the past year. But they recently received an extra $72.5 million the federal government originally sent the State of Tennessee since the state was too slow at giving it away.
In August, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism examined flaws in the local effort to disburse the funds — including a complicated application system and a deficit of outreach, staff, lawyers and buy-in from judges.
In the months since, the application process has been made a bit simpler, word of the assistance has spread farther, and the local program has hired more full-time employees.
But as more and more evictions are filed, MLK50 still found tenants, such as Neal, struggling to complete the application, lawyers still stretched thin and judges not recommending the program to tenants.
With so much money still at their disposal, the leaders of the local program are trying to figure out what’s next. Do they stay focused on the immediate, urgent work or do they look long-term?
A major change, long-awaited
Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court has six judges. Half of them regularly ask tenants facing eviction if they’ve applied for the ERA program.
Thankfully for Neal, the judge in her courtroom was one of those. He delayed her case so she could talk to the ERA representatives occupying the legal services room down the hallway.
Unlike during most of the pandemic, the room is now occupied on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays by “screeners” — Shelby County employees trained to help people apply for the funds — as opposed to lawyers. The move, which Shelby County had promised for months before finalizing it in March, frees the program’s lawyers to attend hearings and work deals with landlords, according to Webb Brewer, a lawyer helping to run the legal side of the local program.
Brewer, working with Neighborhood Preservation Inc., had turned his small squad of lawyers away from helping tenants at the courthouse even before the reinforcements from the county had arrived. After a couple lawyers departed, Brewer left the legal services room empty, so the remaining lawyers could focus on settling cases.
But Brewer knows that decision had consequences. The judges referring tenants to the lawyers couldn’t send them to a physical place for those months, and tenants struggling to apply online couldn’t stop by to ask questions. Brewer said he knows the online application can be difficult for older Memphians and residents who can only access the internet through their phones, calling it a “gauntlet.”
“I worry about … people’s experience and are they able to get through,” Brewer said. “It’s a system that’s kind of heavily reliant on technology.”
After speaking with the screeners, Neal was impressed by how helpful they were with the application process.
By the time she started limping toward the courthouse exit, she was hopeful everything would work out.
Since August, Memphis and Shelby County have steadily improved at getting money to tenants.
In January and February, the combined local effort distributed almost $10 million of the funds, bringing the total allocated to about $50 million. That puts the city and county in the top 20% nationally when it comes to speed in handing out the money it was originally given.
When asked how the program helped so many tenants during the start of 2022, Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin credited the good work of her team but primarily discussed the unfortunate realities many Memphians are facing.
Her team hasn’t struggled to find people wanting the funds, she said, because rental rates are rising quickly and many of the other federal responses to the pandemic are waning.
With such a constant tide of applications, the program has continued to only accept new ones during the first two weeks of almost every month, unless the applicants are imminently facing eviction.
This red light, green light approach has been frustrating and confusing for some tenants and landlords. One landlord told MLK50 the program hasn’t taken new applicants who aren’t facing eviction since Jan. 1, which isn’t true.
One way the program has changed, as of early April, is that tenants are now eligible to receive funds a second time, as long as, between both times, it’s not more than 18 months of rent.
Young Griffin said her team decided to make that change after it got the additional $72.5 million the federal government had originally sent to the State of Tennessee. She had known for months the local effort was poised to receive some of the state’s funds but did not expect that large of an amount.
With the new funding comes roughly $10 million the city and county can spend administering the program.
With all that cash at hand, Young Griffin said her team is trying to figure out “ERA 2.0.”
They could hire more employees to process applications so the program gets faster and more efficient. The federal government, after all, has been urging speed since the program was created.
But Young Griffin thinks the better path is probably hiring social workers to help people applying for the funds with the things that caused them to fall behind on rent in the first place.
“At some point, this money will go away. Something that keeps me up at night … (is the) concern we have: How are we really creating stability for people?” Young Griffin told attendees of the recent West Tennessee Fair Housing Summit.
While she knows she won’t have enough funds to provide every applicant a caseworker, she thinks it would be a huge success if the program could get 100 applicants “in a very different place five years from now.”
Slipping through the cracks
Eviction hearings don’t take very long.
One morning last week, Judge Lynn Cobb breezed through almost 100 cases in less than 45 minutes. Many of the cases had been settled prior to the hearing, and almost none of the tenants for the remaining cases had shown up.
For one case, though, a short young woman wearing glittery eyelashes popped out of her seat in the back corner of the courtroom after hearing her name called.
Cobb didn’t ask if she’d applied for rental assistance and didn’t clarify that eviction was at stake. He simply asked if she owed the amount of rent her landlord’s lawyer said she did.
She said she did. He granted the judgment and told her she should try to work out a payment plan with her apartment manager.
In the hallway afterward, the mother of two 5-year-old boys — who declined to give her name — said she planned to follow the judge’s advice and talk to her apartment manager. She didn’t understand that her landlord could now kick her out of her apartment, given the judge’s ruling. Once told, she said she didn’t understand why the judge didn’t make that clear.
As for rental assistance, the woman said she had heard about the program but didn’t know anything about it.
While $80 million sits waiting to help people like her, a judge had just ordered her eviction for $5,000.
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
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.