After previously announcing the end of the local Emergency Rental Assistance program, the City of Memphis and Shelby County now seems to be reversing their decision, with one official saying the program will be relaunched next year.
In August, Ashley Cash, the city’s director for the division of housing and community development, said the local version of the federally funded, pandemic relief program was accepting its final round of applications because it was running out of money. But in late October, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism revealed that Cash and other local officials had quietly decided not to apply for millions of dollars of additional ERA funds released this fall.
In response to MLK50’s reporting, Memphis City Council member Chase Carlisle asked Cash for a presentation on the program — which has covered back rent and overdue utility bills for more than 19,000 low-income Shelby County households since March 2021 — and whether her team was leaving federal funds on the table. During Tuesday’s meeting of the council’s housing committee, she provided a multi-part defense of her and her colleagues’ choices.
That defense included her concerns about the long-term impact of the program and local government’s ability to staff it. Cash also pointed out that Shelby County residents will still be able to apply for the State of Tennessee’s ERA program until the local one returns. However, the state has been far slower at granting funds and — unlike the local program — has no presence at the courthouse where tenants face their evictions, making it much harder to access for renters on the brink of losing their homes.
The council members were largely receptive to Cash’s presentation. However, they asked her to return in two weeks, so they could ask her additional questions. Cash declined to answer questions from MLK50 after the meeting.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told MLK50 Wednesday morning he has not been involved in any rental assistance program decisions but takes responsibility for any that Cash has made. Since residents can apply for the state program, he said he didn’t think there was a drop in service to residents.
A return of ERA
Cash’s announcement before council Tuesday that the local program will return was a significant departure from what she and others had said previously.
In early August, Cash told MLK50 she was proud that Memphians had been able to access the funds for over a year and that local leaders would have to find other funding sources to help those in need. Later that month, a Shelby County Twitter account announced that Aug. 31 would be “the FINAL deadline to apply for (ERA) funds.”
Then, in October, Cash and Young Griffin told MLK50 they might apply for additional federal funds down the line, but didn’t commit to relaunching the program.
On Tuesday, Cash said local leaders would certainly apply for additional funds soon and hoped to bring the program back in spring 2023.
Cash did not say what led to the change. Before MLK50’s October article, Judge Betty Thomas Moore — who handles eviction cases — said she reached out to Mayor Jim Strickland to ask if he could do anything to keep the program going. Strickland told MLK50 he met with Cash about the program, after the article was published and before Tuesday’s meeting, to learn more about it.
Also following the article, which was also published in The Commercial Appeal, Shelby County Assessor of Property CAO Javier Bailey said on Facebook that he would be working with Assessor Melvin Burgess to get the city and county to reverse course.
Reasons they didn’t apply
Cash and Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin told MLK50 in October that they hadn’t applied for these additional funds because they were focused on spending the funds they already had.
Cash elaborated Tuesday, saying her team is partially constrained by its staffing.
“We are subject to … labor shortages, attrition, burnout,” said Cash. “We have to balance all of that before we dive into another bucket of funding.”
Council member Patrice Robinson said the staffing issue was her main takeaway from the presentation. She suggested Cash find temporary employees or other forms of support, so her team could “do what we’re asking them to do.”
Before accepting more federal funds, Cash said program leaders want to find ways to make it less “transactional” and more helpful to tenants in the long term. She said her team recently worked with a graduate student to survey past program beneficiaries, and the survey found that 67% of participants quickly fell behind on rent again. (A city spokesperson told MLK50 it would have to file a public records request to receive the survey results.)
“I would love to see us invest more in case management, invest more in social work,” Cash said.
She did not elaborate on how that work would be funded, given the federal government’s requirement that the large majority of ERA funds be spent on overdue rent or utility bills.
Evictions increase renters’ blood pressure as well as their risk of sleeping in a homeless shelter or even dying by suicide. Ryan Stittiams, whom the ERA program saved from an eviction in 2021, said he is one of the many who has since fallen behind on rent. However, he hasn’t faced another eviction, and he called the assistance “a true blessing” that saved him and his five children from a year he “(doesn’t) even want to think about.”
The program has likely played a role in the significant decline in eviction cases Shelby County has seen since the start of COVID-19.
Other Council comments
Council member Martavius Jones told Cash he appreciated her desire to address the root causes of housing instability through case management. However, he also pointed out that Memphians will have to rely in the coming months on state officials, who are hard to hold accountable.
“It’s very concerning … we haven’t gone about the steps of continuing to have a flow of the funds (locally),” he said.
After the meeting, council member Jeff Warren was complimentary of the program’s ability to spend more than $100 million since March 2021. He said Cash’s presentation made it clear to him she knows what she’s doing.
“They needed to spend their time … getting the money out that we had,” Warren said. “They’re going to be ready to apply for (additional funds) when the time comes.”
Council member Frank Colvett, chairman of the council’s housing committee, said that when Cash returns in two weeks, he hopes to discuss ways the city can expand its rental assistance work and receive more federal funds. This will be crucial, he said, because he believes a recession is imminent.
“The bottom line is we simply need more money,” he said.
Deficits of funding and support
While the local program has been faster at getting funds to families who need them than programs in most peer cities, it has not been without its flaws.
In August 2021, MLK50 found that the program’s outreach effort was underfunded, its office staff was stretched thin and there were far too few attorneys to guide tenants through the process.
Many of these issues came from the federal guidelines, which allowed Memphis and Shelby County to spend less than 15% of their ERA funds on administrative costs — not enough to staff a large new government program.
The local program was also hampered by a lack of buy-in from the General Sessions Civil Court judges who handle evictions. In a July investigation, MLK50 journalists found that while all six of these judges knew about the ERA funds, only three told tenants about it in court.
That meant a tenant’s random courtroom assignment played a major role in their chance of receiving the funds.
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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