By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — The moratorium on evictions is expected to end December 31. Unless Congress acts soon and passes another stimulus bill, thousands of Tennessee renters will be put out on the street by the end of January.
The legal process can take 1-3 weeks. Once a landlord files a complaint, called a detainer warrant, the tenant is served with papers and gets a court date. Tenants can file an answer with the court clerk before the trial. If the landlord wins in General Sessions court, the judge will grant a writ of restitution. Tenants usually have 10 days to vacate but not always. When a writ of restitution is issued, also called writ of possession, county sheriffs usually remove you within 48-72 hours.
“I’m really scared about what is going to happen,” said Vanessa Bullock, housing managing attorney with West Tennessee Legal
Services (WTLS). Bullock said housing has been a crisis in Memphis ever since she started with the agency seven years ago. WTLS serves residents in 17 counties.
Many working families have lost income due to COVID-19. Bullock said tax refunds and federal stimulus money bought people some time to pay bills and catch up on their rent, but a lot of people are now in the same position they were in five months ago with no job or with work hours cut and they are staying home with the kids. Some renters are months behind and owe thousands.
“The reality is there are going to be people on the street unless something comes from the feds or the state soon,” Bullock said. “Without money there is not a whole lot that can be done.”
She said big landlords can ride a few months without getting paid but a lot of small landlords are struggling and need help just as much as tenants do.
Many homeowners with federally backed mortgages obtained 90-day forbearances from their mortgage servicer when they lost jobs due to COVID-19. But as the pandemic continued to worsen, many people were still unemployed and couldn’t resume their payments. They could ask for forbearance three more times for a total of a 360-day mortgage holiday.
But that year’s grace will be coming to an end soon, not on December 31 like the eviction moratorium, but in the coming months. In both cases, renters and homeowners still owe the money.
Low-income homeowners who haven’t paid their mortgage since June are now six months in arrears. “There’s no way the federal government can issue enough money to pay for that,” said Eddie Latimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources (AHR) in Nashville. “But the feds could create a stimulus plan to get the mortgage servicers current,” he said.
Mortgage servicers collect payments like rent and then pay off the bank that issued the loan. “That’s the only way to solve the problem,” Latimer said. Of course, if homeowners still couldn’t make their monthly payment after that, they would face foreclosure.
In 2021 lack of available housing could become a perfect storm with thousands of newly homeless people unable to find income-based rentals and thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure just like in 2008. At that time, people just walked away from their underwater mortgages and it triggered a recession. It could happen again.
Latimer said Tennessee got $150 million from the CARES Act for rental assistance and mortgage assistance but most of it never got to where it should have gone.
Governor Lee convened a Stimulus Accountability Group to allocate that $150 million.
The money went through the Department of Human Services and that was a big mistake in Latimer’s view. Even so, it went to a lot of good uses, mostly through the United Way (see https://tntribune.com/getting-stimulus-relief-where-it-needs-to-go/, Tennessee Tribune September 11, 2020.) But with so many cooks in the kitchen it isn’t surprising just $10 million went to some 35 agencies in Middle Tennessee for tenant rent relief. Latimer’s non-profit was one of them.
“We spent the United Way money first to meet the sunset,” he said. “So, that’s now gone.” He said they are working with MDHA money now until the end of February and have about $5 million in federal HUD money that has no sunset.
According to Tracey Dill, director of Economic & Financial Mobility with the United Way of Greater Nashville (UWGN), agencies like AHR are all closed for applicants, but are still in the process of working through the applications they have received to allocate the final dollars. “They have one more week to complete the process and draw the full amount,” Dill said.
Dill said UWGN allocated $9,068,640 to 38 nonprofits for direct financial assistance. The remainder of the $10M was spent for agency administration to process applications over the 3 months.
“According to the report, $8,679,333.11 has been allocated to date. This has served 3,695 households impacting 7,301 people,” Dill said.
The number of Tennessee renters behind in their rent is between 220,000 and 310,000, according to Doreen Graves of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA). She said the amount of unpaid rent owed is between $457-$599 million.
Graves said THDA has $33 million in emergency special allocation HUD funds, authorized through the CARES Act. The money is to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and help people who are homeless or about to become homeless.
On a conference call last week, the Tennessee Black Caucus discussed the looming evictions that will happen when the moratorium ends on December 31.
In Shelby County, pre-pandemic, there were between 2,500-3,000 eviction cases a month. According to Rep. Larry Miller (D, Shelby County), now there are 20,000 cases pending. Rep. Yusef Hakim (D, Chattanooga) reported that between 5,000-6,000 cases are waiting to be heard once the moratorium ends.
Davidson County seems to be anomalous. Tommy King, chief deputy circuit court clerk, said his office issued 10,726 detainers in 2019, and there were 2,534 writs (eviction orders) issued, about 24%. This year, there were 5,584 detainers resulting in 1,210 writs, about 22%.
“I think we will see more of a detainer increase after the moratorium expires,” King said.
Bullock said you can’t find income-based housing in ten days and that tenants facing eviction need to start looking right away and at least consult a lawyer before they go to court.