One of the main problems with the eviction system in Shelby County, experts say, is how difficult it is to understand.
When tenants show up to General Sessions Civil Court for their eviction hearing, they rarely fully understand what’s at stake or how the process will go. Some expect it to proceed like a television courtroom show; some don’t know eviction is a possibility; and others fear jail as a potential outcome. Frequently, renters agree to their evictions but leave the courtroom not knowing they have.
Most landlords have attorneys, and hardly any tenants do. Lawyers are expensive, and many tenants haven’t heard of the few pro bono opportunities available.
The Shelby County Division of Community Services is hoping to narrow the information gap with a new $250,000 grant from the National Center for State Courts. With the cash, Community Services will employ a full-time employee to explain the eviction process to people and connect them to pro bono attorneys, cash assistance and other resources.
General Sessions judge Danielle Mitchell, who helped Community Services apply for the grant, said it’s “hard to watch” tenants not understand what’s happening well enough to make the decisions that are best for them.
“(I’m) coming from a neutral, unbiased position. … But when you look across (at the tenant) and see someone looking like a deer in the headlights, being able to refer them to programs that provide them access to justice is helpful,” Mitchell said.
The new employee will be located in Room 134 in the 140 Adams Ave. courthouse starting in November, according to Karen Gause, a program manager at Community Services. During the heights of the pandemic and the Emergency Rental Assistance program — which is ongoing but distributing far fewer funds — the room was frequently occupied by Community Services employees or nonprofit lawyers working on the program. Some of the judges frequently referred tenants there, allowing program staffers to help people apply for rental assistance or receive updates on ongoing applications.
Mitchell said she’s excited to again refer tenants to the room, which is currently being renovated with some of the grant funds.
In the room, the employee will connect tenants to free legal assistance, job opportunities, housing options and Emergency Rental Assistance from the county, The Works and Memphis Area Legal Services. The county hopes to soon open applications for the $2.6 million of ERA it received from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency in early 2023, Gause said. Memphis Area Legal Services has already spent almost all of the $250,000 of ERA funds THDA sent it for this year but will have another $250,000 available in 2024, according to CEO Cindy Ettingoff.
While they will be unable to provide legal advice, the employee will walk tenants through how eviction court works and what their options are in the courtroom.
To learn more about eviction court and the free legal help available, read this guide MLK50: Justice Through Journalism produced with the help of local experts.
Eviction cases often last just a minute or two and hinge on a single moment when judges ask the tenants whether they agree or disagree they owe their landlord money.
If tenants answer “agree,” the judge grants the eviction since Tennessee law allows for evictions whenever a tenant owes money, except in some rare circumstances. If they disagree, their case will be set for trial — with the tenants likely representing themselves — either later that day or within a couple of weeks. However, most of the judges fail to explain the question and its implications to tenants. And after court, many tenants who have agreed to their own eviction have told MLK50 they didn’t understand what had happened.
Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, tenants can request a two-week continuance if it’s their case’s first hearing. While this option is often the best one for tenants who need a few more days to come up with money or find a new home, it isn’t offered by judges, forcing tenants to bring it up on their own. Gause singled this option out as a piece of insight she’s hoping to provide to tenants thanks to the grant.
Gause said her team is planning to inform local renters about the resource room by working with local nonprofits and potentially mailing postcards to addresses where evictions have just been filed. She hopes tenants will come before the day of their eviction hearing so the worker can provide them with more help.
Assistance will also be available for “mom-and-pop” landlords, who may own one or two rental homes but aren’t represented by a lawyer, Mitchell said.
In the last year, there have been more than 29,000 eviction filings in Shelby County. That’s about 9% more than during a typical year, according to Eviction Lab, and equivalent to about 8% of households in the county.
This crisis disproportionately affects children, especially Black children, with more than 25% of Black kids under the age of 5 facing an eviction filing each year, according to a new study by researchers at Princeton, Rutgers and the U.S. Census Bureau. Evictions have significant effects on children’s mental health and increase their chances of facing food insecurity, academic struggles and various long-term health problems, the researchers wrote.
“When I started writing about these issues, I kind of thought kids would shield families from eviction,” Matthew Desmond, who contributed to the study, told The New York Times. “But they expose families to eviction.”
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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