The current shortage of homes in the U.S. surpasses anything the country has ever seen. With too little housing, Memphis-area renters are paying 28% more than they were in March 2020. And those are the Memphians able to find a place to stay.
Increasingly, Memphians can’t find housing and are turning to extended-stay hotels, family members’ homes and homeless shelters while they continue to search.
Experts say multiple systemic changes are needed to address the shortage.
But to help in the short term, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism worked with local experts to produce tips for people struggling to find rental housing.
Tip 1: Look for small landlords
There’s no one best way to look for available rentals.
Damon Williams, who leads the Frayser Community Development Corp., suggested driving around looking for for-rent signs because many small landlords don’t list their properties online.
Arianna Whitlow, who struggled to find housing for months after Reedy & Co. evicted her, said people who have been evicted should specifically look for these smaller landlords and try to talk to them. While most won’t have empathy, someone might be willing to help.
“Don’t be afraid to tell your story — to let people know what was going on (with your eviction),” Whitlow said.
Memphis-based Leasing Angels, which makes its money by helping landlords fill vacancies, offers to help renters find housing for free. Still, founder Nannette Bean said her team is having a harder time finding housing for clients, especially ones with bad credit or prior evictions.
Tip 2: Work on your credit score
Unfortunately, finding empty, affordable rentals is sometimes the easy part.
Because of the shortage, landlords can be picky about whose applications for housing they approve.
Landlords increasingly want tenants to earn three times as much as the rental rate. But, even meeting this criteria is no guarantee of finding housing. Landlords and property managers are frequently denying tenants that earn plenty of money but have poor credit scores or prior evictions.
“I don’t care how much money you have; credit is just as important,” Bean said. “I had a client recently who makes over $500,000 a year. Her credit score is really bad because she just got out of a really messy divorce. We couldn’t buy her an apartment Downtown.”
Memphians have some of the lowest credit scores in the country.
Bean said Memphians searching for housing shouldn’t apply to as many rentals as possible. Each application can lead to a credit check by the landlord, which can lower your score further, depending on timing. Especially if you are being denied based on credit, Bean encouraged improving your score before continuing to apply for apartments.
A good way to start is by getting a free copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com, according to Karen Madlock, who helps run the Greater Memphis Financial Empowerment Center. While the report won’t list your score, it will list the pieces of your credit history that are damaging your score. Once these pieces are known, it’s easier to fix parts that aren’t accurate and improve other parts.
If you want to learn more about credit scores, the Federal Trade Commission provides a variety of information and resources on its website.
Most improvements will be related to your current debt, Madlock said. When you are able to reduce your credit card balances to 30% of the amount credit card companies have agreed to lend you, it will make a huge difference in your score. A streak of on-time credit card payments can also give your score a large boost.
For help with all this, Madlock’s nonprofit offers unlimited, free counseling sessions. The GMFEC moved to virtual sessions during the pandemic and has stuck with them since they’re easier for parents to attend.
Tip 3: In an emergency, these people can help
Of course, sometimes, there’s no time to wait for a boosted credit score. Many Memphians are searching for apartments so they can avoid imminent homelessness.
In these situations, local homelessness nonprofits provide last-resort resources to keep people off the streets.
The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association can help families with children find housing. However, it’s currently taking the nonprofit between 40 and 60 days to find housing for clients because of the shortage, according to vice president Mary Hamlett. That’s about four times longer than pre-COVID-19. While waiting, families have to stay in shelters or motels. And, the group can only help families that are “literally homeless,” meaning they don’t have family or friends to stay with, Hamlett said.
If you’re a single male, the Memphis Union Mission provides similar services, and The Salvation Army Memphis helps single women, Hamlett said. YWCA Greater Memphis has a program for women facing domestic violence. OUTMemphis helps house LGBTQ people between the ages of 18 and 24. Agape Child and Family Services helps parents between those same ages.
Hamlett called the current housing shortage “frightening” and made clear how little MIFA or any individual organization can do to address it.
“We don’t have enough shelters to get people off the street, much less housing to get them from shelters,” Hamlett said. “This situation is going to take a huge, community-wide — inclusive of government — effort.”
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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