When Howard Davis’ name was called in Shelby County’s eviction court on July 17, an older woman arose from her seat.
The landlord’s lawyer, confused, turned to her and asked if she was Howard. No, she said, Howard had died in April; she was Dianne Davis, his wife.
She explained that she would pay her past-due rent the first week of August when her Social Security Survivors Benefits kicked in. The judge delayed her case the customary seven days.
She left feeling hopeful that she’d be able to hold onto the Vue at Claudette apartment she and Howard had shared for 16 years. After all, she said, the apartment complex’s managers had told her they’d work with her.
Back in court on July 24, the 69-year-old again explained that she wouldn’t have her Social Security check for another week and a half. The landlord’s lawyer, Derek Whitlock, pushed to resolve the case that day. During a break in court proceedings, he convinced Davis to agree to a “possession only” eviction judgment — she would have to vacate her apartment but would no longer owe the unpaid rent.
Davis left angry, hurt and confused.
Howard had always handled the rent payments and had never missed one, as far as she knew. She had promised to pay off her balance as soon as possible. With 16 years of history at the apartment, how could she be kicked out over a couple thousand dollars and the difference of a couple of weeks?
In the last year, there have been about 30,000 eviction filings in Shelby County — about 10% more than during a typical year, according to Eviction Lab. Each one, experts say, carries the potential to drive someone further into poverty by pushing them toward worse housing, ruining their credit and cutting them off from the community they depend upon.
In many of these cases, the tenants hadn’t paid rent in months. But in many others, they had simply fallen a month or two behind — thrown off by a death, a sickness or a job loss. The same day Davis agreed to her eviction, Whitlock also won eviction judgments against a young woman who fell behind after delivering the newborn she brought with her, and a young man who owed less than $300. (Of the eviction judgments from 2014-2016 that were analyzed by Eviction Lab, about one-third were for less than one month of the area’s median rent.)
The court — Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court — doesn’t factor in such things. Under Tennessee’s landlord-friendly state laws, if a tenant has any outstanding unpaid rent, it’s almost impossible for them to avoid an eviction judgment, especially since few have lawyers. Some of the judges try to help tenants more than others, but even the more merciful ones almost always side with the landlords.
Some of the judges have spoken openly about the injustices of the landlord-friendly system. Whitlock himself questioned why the laws are so landlord-friendly and said cases like Davis’ are hard to participate in.
“I can’t change the laws. I have a job to do,” he said. “I wish justice applied 100% in each and every court situation. … (But) the balance between enforcing the laws … and having a heart is a fine line.”
He declined to discuss the specifics of Davis’ case, as did a manager of the Vue at Claudette. The property’s owner, DJ Acquisitions, did not return multiple phone calls from MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
Davis couldn’t reach DJ Acquisitions either. And, because of turnover in the property management office, she was left dealing with various people, who she said regularly contradicted each other and their own previous statements.
Back in June, she showed her apartment to some folks from the manager’s office. They all expressed remorse for not having fixed the maintenance issues she’d reported — from the roaches to the broken shower to the leaking sewage pipes. They promised they’d help her switch apartments within the complex, work with her as she caught up on rent and even give her a discount because of the conditions. They told her not to worry much about the money.
Then, in July, their tune changed, she said. They wanted the full amount of unpaid rent or nothing at all. They told her she’d have to go to court. They weren’t willing to wait on Social Security.
“You deliberately turned your back on me when I needed you most,” she said of her apartment’s managers.
Throughout her conversations with MLK50, Davis repeatedly brought up that betrayal by management. It was the part of her crisis she least understood and the part that left her the most “heartbroken.”
Jamie Johnson, founder of the Memphis Public Interest Law Center and co-founder of The Greater Memphis Housing Justice Project, called Davis’ case particularly cruel but said it’s not uncommon for landlords to break promises with tenants.
She pointed out that DJ Acquisitions may not even know about Davis or its eviction of her. Many landlords have set up systems that automatically instruct their lawyers to start eviction proceedings against tenants with unpaid rent — regardless of the circumstances. And once a lawyer is involved, neither the landlord nor the lawyer tends to give tenants extra time — even though either one could choose to do so.
Johnson is working to change this system by organizing renters and providing legal support to renters who can’t afford it.
Separately, Shelby County General Sessions Judge Deborah Henderson and Memphis Area Legal Services recently launched an effort to lower the number of eviction cases by helping small landlords settle disputes with their tenants without litigation. MALS is also starting to disburse Emergency Rental Assistance funds they received earlier this year. And, The Works Inc. is offering free legal services to tenants facing eviction.
While, in the future, all of these efforts might help tenants like Davis, none were able to help her.
She left the courthouse on July 24 knowing she had 10 days to pack up a home stuffed with 16 years of memories and possessions. She decided to move in with her daughter in Paragould, Arkansas — leaving behind a church she loved and the doctors taking care of her diabetes and congestive heart failure.
Davis had lived in Memphis since a hurricane forced her and Howard to move from New Orleans. She said the housing crisis forcing her to move this time feels similar.
“This is like another Katrina,” she said.
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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