Racing Against Time for Rental Assistance

Caregiver Joice Seay, who lost two clients to COVID-19, discussing her HOPE application for rental assistance with Metro Action Commission worker at the Southeast Community Center in Antioch on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

NASHVILLE, TN – The Metro Action Commission, PATHE Activists, at least two General Sessions Court judges, and one Metro Council member are working hard to get rental assistance to as many people as they can before July 31.

At the stroke of midnight on July 31, the eviction moratorium ends; it has been extended three times; it is unlikely it will be extended again. Once it expires, several hundred eviction cases on file since last February will be heard in General Sessions Court. Added to them will be hundreds of new cases, perhaps thousands. (See Eviction)

In March 2021 General Sessions Judge Rachel Bell created a special docket for eviction cases called the Housing Resource Diversionary Court (HRDC). Between February 23-July 12, Bell’s diversionary court heard 1242 cases, according to General Session Civil Division Chief Clerk Tommy King.

Landlords, their lawyers, tenants and Metro Action Commission (MAC) try to reach a settlement with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Bell acts as a mediator more than a judge. If things work out, and sometimes that takes more than one session, the landlord gets paid and the tenant doesn’t get evicted.

Davidson County got about $20 million for rent relief from the Act and it will be available until September 2022, according to MAC spokesperson Lisa McCrady.

Margaritta Hill and Joice Seay work as home caregivers. They need help now to avoid getting tossed out onto the street.

“I was the first one they called for the HOPE program. I filled out everything and I haven’t heard nothing,” Seay said. But MAC called Seay’s landlord to say they needed her email address. The landlord told Seay. Seay took her landlord’s email address down to the MAC office but she still got no word back on her application.

Seay clearly qualifies. She was a home caregiver with three clients. Two died from Covid-19 and Seay caught it, too. Now she has just one client and six months of unpaid rent for a duplex on Murfreesboro Rd.

Last Saturday, Seay went to the Southeast Community Center in Antioch to move her application along. MAC intake workers were helping people file the paperwork. Once applications are complete they are processed and then funds are released to the landlord. There will be three more Community HOPE working sessions this month.

As of July 1, MAC had distributed $1 million of $20 million set aside for Davidson County rental assistance, according to People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing & Employment (PATHE). McCrady said that MAC has distributed $6 million. Still, less than half of Davidson County’s federal rent assistance allotment has been disbursed.

McCrady said that delays have largely been due to missing documentation. “We have more directives than what United Way distributed under the Cares Act,” she said.

In May the U.S. Treasury Department issued new rules to speed up the distribution of $46.5 billion in aid for unpaid rent, utilities, and other costs like moving expenses and hotel stays. State and local governments are running about 400 separate programs. The new rules cut through some red tape and are less onerous for tenants but rental assistance programs across the country have been slow to roll out.

In early 2021, the State of Tennessee got $458 million for rental assistance under the ERA1 program. Seventy-five million went to Davidson and other large counties to do their own local rental assistance. That left the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) with $383 million. Much of the ERA1 money is still available. To apply, go to: https://thda.org/help-for-renters-section-8/covidrentrelief

On July 8, Tennessee received an additional $125 million under the ERA2 program. None of that money has been disbursed yet. If you live in Davidson County you can apply online here: http://hope.nashville.gov/ or call HOPE Rental Assistance Program. 615-862-RENT (7368).

According to the New York Times, few ERA1 program dollars had been distributed by May 7. Some programs started late, others had software glitches, and some required proof of income that tenants found hard to produce. Some landlords are uncooperative and won’t provide information to tenants seeking aid. In addition, many of the most disadvantaged tenants do not know the program exists.

That’s what members of People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing & Employment (PATHE) found when they went door to door to talk with tenants who are on the eviction docket. Sometimes it’s a hard sell convincing strangers to show up in court.

“For a lot of people their impression is ‘the only purpose of me showing up is for me to be publicly embarrassed. I know what this paper says, I know how much money I owe, I know I can’t pay it so why am I showing up?’” said PATHE’s Melissa Cherry.

Activist Melissa Perry with People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing & Employment
(PATHE) talking with volunteers about the information they give tenants who are facing eviction. Six volunteers, including At-Large Councilwoman Burkley Allen, visited tenants at an apartment complex on Elm Hill Pike over the weekend.

Cherry said PATHE activists got involved after seeing for themselves what was going on in General Sessions Court.

“Ninety percent of the people on the docket weren’t showing up. …default ruling after default ruling after default ruling in favor of the landlord with no discussion whatsoever of the CDC protection (eviction moratorium),” Cherry said.

In Judge Bell’s courtroom, though, it was a different story. PATHE activists saw Bell’s staff talking to tenants and getting them to sign up with MAC for assistance.

“We saw how much help they were getting once they showed up. And we talked with them and asked what we could do to help out and overwhelmingly they said “get people to show up’,” Cherry said.

So that’s what they did. Two weeks ago PATHE volunteers found cases set on the upcoming docket. They concentrated on apartments complexes where landlords had filed for eviction on numerous tenants. They went door to door urging people to show up in court.

“Of the people who showed up that day, every single one of them was able to move to diversionary court,” Cherry said.