A program that saved thousands of Memphians from eviction in 2021 and 2022 is returning, but it won’t look the same.

Four local organizations are preparing to distribute about $5 million of Emergency Rental Assistance in the next couple of years after recent redistributions by the Treasury Department and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. 

It’s a comparatively small sum, given the City of Memphis and Shelby County received about $132 million of ERA cash in 2021 and 2022. 

However, with eviction filings in Shelby County now surpassing pre-Covid levels, the funds carry the power to assist thousands of families on the brink of losing their homes and spur the creation of much-needed affordable housing. The four groups — The Works, Memphis Area Legal Services, Shelby County Community Services Agency and the City of Memphis Divison of Housing and Community Development — had previously been working together on distributing ERA funds from a shared pool, but they now have their own pots.

Shelby County officials said they’re awaiting additional THDA guidance to decide when and how to distribute the county’s pot, which — at $2.6 million — is larger than the other three groups’ allotment combined. However, here’s how the other three groups say they’ll spend theirs:

  • The City of Memphis plans to spend its $1.4 million on subsidizing the construction of affordable housing, according to Ashley Cash, director of the Division of Housing and Community Development. It hasn’t yet chosen a project to back. 
  • While it’s still creating its plans, MALS preliminarily expects to use its $500,000 in two primary ways, according to CEO Cindy Ettingoff. First, it plans to use the cash to negotiate with landlords seeking to evict tenants the organization is already assisting in other ways, including via a mediation program it’s hoping to launch soon. Second, it hopes it can step in and help tenants who need a small amount of cash — perhaps one month’s worth of rent — to hold their landlord off until they can access other types of assistance, such as the county’s larger pot. 
  • Like MALS, The Works expects to use some of its funds to assist tenants at risk of eviction who have applied for its free legal services, according to Webb Brewer, who has helped lead the nonprofit’s rental assistance work. And it hopes to find ways to let the general public apply for funds. However, Brewer said, the nonprofit is far from finalizing its plans.

Returning after a sudden end

Working together, the four groups helped about 40,000 Shelby County households with their rent in 2021 and 2022, according to Treasury Department data. 

It was by far the largest assistance program for people behind on their rent the county had ever seen and doubtlessly saved thousands of families from the life-threatening effects of eviction, such as increased blood pressure and homelessness.

The combined effort announced in August 2022 that it would accept its final round of applications that month, as it was running out of money and hadn’t applied for an additional allocation of Treasury funds.

However, after Memphis City Council members asked the city officials why they had stopped applying for more funds — prompted by MLK50 reporting — the officials decided to apply for more.

The city asked for $18 million of additional Treasury funds. In April, it learned it would receive $1.4 million instead. 

Separately, the county has also asked for more Treasury funds but hasn’t received any, according to Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin. Its new cash, along with the new money for The Works and MALS, came through THDA. 

The state agency announced in November that it would stop accepting applicants for its rental assistance program in January, despite having hundreds of millions of dollars left to distribute. The decision, which shocked local officials, came mere weeks after THDA director Ralph Perrey promised Memphis’ city council that his agency would pay special attention to Memphians for the rest of the time it administered its program.

Since it is no longer distributing the money itself, the agency has started sending those hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments and nonprofits across the state. 

Since the original rental assistance program in Shelby County stopped accepting new applicants, eviction filings have jumped locally.

Local filings remained under their pre-Covid pace as long as the local program was accepting applicants, according to Eviction Lab. In March, they reached 130% of their pre-2020 average.

That month, landlords filed documents to kick almost 2,300 households out of their homes.

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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