A view of a statue outside General Sessions Civil Court, which handles evictions, in downtown Memphis. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

A program that rescued thousands of Shelby County residents from eviction over the past year and a half is coming to a close.

Memphis and Shelby County are nearing the end of their federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds, according to Ashley Cash, director for the Division of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis. The joint city-county program is accepting its final round of requests this month, with applications due on Aug. 31

Between requests currently in the queue and those submitted this month, Cash thinks the program will be able to distribute the rest of its funds — which could be in tens of millions of dollars. 

Need rental assistance?

Memphis and Shelby County are accepting their final round of rental assistance applications, with applications due on Aug. 31. Click here to find more information about applying, or call 211.

She said she is proud of the local team’s efforts to help get county residents through the worst of the pandemic.

“People have been able to access these funds for over a year,” Cash said. “We’re going to have to shift to more sustainable funding to help people earn enough to pay their rent.”

Cash said her team is currently putting together a list of other resources for people behind on their rent so they can remain helpful to tenants in need. 

However, the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program was by far the largest and most generous assistance program for people behind on rent that Shelby County has seen. 

The U.S. government gave more than $59 million in ERA directly to the City of Memphis and Shelby County. The State of Tennessee then passed along $72.5 million the federal government had sent it, for a total of about $132 million.

From March 2021 through June 2022 — 16 months — the local program spent about $72 million to cover rent or utilities for tens of thousands of households, according to Treasury Department data. It’s unclear how it might distribute an estimated $50 million it would have left by helping renters with pending applications and new ones from July and August. When asked by email to confirm these amounts, Cash did not reply. However, she said during an earlier interview that the program still has a significant number of applications from prior months waiting for approval.

A sign at the Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court directs tenants seeking aid to the office where there are county employees who work with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Cash also said she wasn’t sure if the local program would be eligible for future allocations from the state or federal governments as they try to distribute the rest of their funds. 

The piles of federal cash were originally meant for people who earn less than 80% of the area’s median income and who fell behind on rent or utility bills due to a coronavirus-related hardship. However, over the last year and a half, both the federal government and local agencies relaxed rules around proving both income and hardships to get the funds out the door quickly. 

Memphis and Shelby County proved faster at distributing their funds than most local governments but were also far slower than some cities, such as Louisville and San Antonio.

MLK50 found in August 2021 that there were too few attorneys to guide tenants through the process, and the available attorneys were eager but hampered by a lack of experience.

Whether renters learn that financial aid is available when they visit court is largely left up to chance. In a July 2022 investigation, MLK50 journalists found that while all six General Sessions Civil Court judges knew about the Emergency Rental Assistance funds, only three told tenants about it in court. 

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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