NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Legal Aid Society and Conexión Américas today announced a new two-year pilot program, Right to Counsel, aimed at providing outreach, education and legal aid to qualifying low-income renters.
The $2.6 million program, approved by Metro Council on June 7, is being funded through the American Rescue Plan and is the first of its kind in Middle Tennessee to take a comprehensive approach to provide legal counsel for tenants facing eviction. The program has been shepherded from its inception by Councilwoman Zulfat Suara; Erin Akery of United Way of Greater Nashville; DarKenya W. Waller, executive director of Legal Aid Society; and Martha Silva, co-executive director of Conexión Américas.
All low-income Davidson County residents will be eligible for the program’s services, including immigrant communities. Anyone facing eviction who meets eligibility requirements will be provided legal assistance as resources permit.
Legal Aid Society’s Nashville team of housing attorneys is expected to increase from 2 to 6 to handle the additional clients and outreach. Attorneys from the Hispanic Bar Association will assist with cases as the need warrants. American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), People’s Alliance for Transit Housing and Employment (PATHE) Nashville and others will provide additional support with outreach services.
“Conexión Américas takes great pride in being a part of this grant from Nashville’s American Rescue Plan Act funding,” said Martha Silva, Conexión Américas co-executive director. “We know that there is a lot of work to be done to prevent unfair evictions of families in Davidson County, especially in areas where there is a greater concentration of immigrant families. We are excited to be a part of this program alongside Legal Aid Society and other partners. It is our hope that families can stay in their homes and learn their rights and responsibilities, and that landlords will be held accountable to following the laws that protect tenants.”
“Housing is a critical issue for Nashville. With the increase in the cost of living, stagnant wages, and the influx of new residents, more and more residents are having difficulty staying in their homes,” said Councilwoman Zulfat Suara. “As a result, homelessness increases, leaving families scrambling to just survive. Children suffer at school as they now have to deal with the trauma of homelessness and changing schools. I am therefore grateful to everyone who has collaborated to make this pilot program happen and to the American Rescue Plan committee and my colleagues on council for supporting this initiative. We have a long way to go in solving the housing crisis in Nashville, but this program is a huge step in the right direction.”
“This is the first step toward an actual right to counsel,” said DarKenya W. Waller. “An actual right to counsel includes a legal right that can be enforced. This is a commitment on the part of the city to make a conscious effort to make the eviction fight fair and level the playing field. The next step would be to make it a right. We have studied cities like New York, San Francisco and Newark, who have led the way in making legal representation in eviction cases a right. Their formal evaluations have shown that an investment of this type can have a multimillion-dollar return to the cities that implement it.”
A recent study presented to Metro Council by the Vanderbilt University Action Research class found that between 2016 and 2021, 99.8% of Davidson County eviction plaintiffs had an attorney, while less than 1% of defendants were represented by an attorney.