Faith Klein started a Monday morning by listening to a client who lost a six-figure job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was now on the verge of eviction. As a medical technician, the man was immuno-compromised and couldn’t risk catching the novel coronavirus through his work. He asked for leave but was fired.
Klein works with the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC,) which works with clients to battle a looming eviction crisis. She and other advocates fear their work may not be enough to stop issues threatening to ripple through the city after the federal eviction moratorium ends Dec. 31.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered a temporary ban on evictions nationwide, but eviction cases are already starting to fill up the Davidson County General Sessions Court with tenants who may be unaware of the moratorium and landlords taking advantage of the situation.
“The CDC moratorium made it possible for tenants to fill out a form that attested to a few things. If the tenant knew to fill out the form, filled out the form and gave it to the landlord, then they were protected,” said Sara Figil, president and executive director of the (NCRC).
Two moratoriums have been issued this year, and current eviction cases may be due to issues unrelated to COVID-19 or because tenants were unaware of the second ban. Mondays are typically the busiest days at the courthouse for eviction cases, which are lumped together on the same dockets. Some tenants choose not to attend court, possibly unaware that they will receive an automatic judgement for eviction. For those who do attend, the NCRC offers a last-minute rescue for both tenants and landlords.
As a representative of NCRC, Faith Klein starts just about every morning, five days a week, by standing in front of a courtroom full of desperate people.
“Can I please have your attention for a second,” said Klein. “I work with a nonprofit called the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center. If you are here for a possible eviction due to nonpayment of rent, and your reason for being unable to pay is related to the pandemic, you will likely qualify for rent assistance.”
Then she waits until recess is called.
The NCRC’s mission is primarily to provide free mediation services between landlords and tenants in an effort to avoid eviction and further court involvement. When the pandemic hit, Metro funds provided NCRC a checkbook to go along with their services.
Within a few minutes after the judge calls recess, a long line of people waited to speak with Klein. There are many reasons why people stopped working: COVID, job loss, child care issues, and their stories start to run together.
One of Klein’s first clients was the medical technician who went from making $105,000 to being taken to court for unpaid rent. In order for someone to receive financial assistance, they have to provide proof of lost wages due to COVID, and have made reasonable efforts to find a job or receive unemployment; and in this case, the man provides notes from his physician. Klein motions to the landlord standing nearby, offering rental assistance as long as he drops the case.
“If I get my money, that’s the bottom line,” said the landlord, agreeing to drop the case.
“I hope I never see you again,” he jokes as he leaves.
Tenants have to fulfill certain requirements. They must live in Davidson County and have experienced financial problems due to COVID. When the money became available in September, NCRC staffers “knew it had to be out fast,” as the money had to be given out by the end of December, said Figil. Long months dealing with the pandemic meant many families are stretched to the limit.
Because of the pandemic, people don’t have to be poor to suddenly be poor, according to Figel.
“Whatever resources they may have had at the beginning of the pandemic no longer exist, and they’re really without any means to maneuver around it,” said Mark Tahiry, a real estate and small claims lawyer working pro bono in eviction cases. “The NCRC is able to step in and actually able to resolve one of the biggest issues, which is the nonpayment of rent.”
Founded in 2000, the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center partners with courts, schools, and other organizations to provide free mediation services that are private and confidential, allowing successful participants to avoid eviction, further court or police involvement, loss of employment or school discipline. Fees are based on a sliding scale.
On average, NCRC employees award $4,000 to each tenant. United Way of Middle Tennessee oversees all financial relief through a charity tracker, which ensures everyone gets a fair chance.
“It’s just incredible. It’s oxygen to people,” said Figel.
While tenants are struggling to pay rent, landowners are facing financial disaster as well.
“It just shifted the burden onto the whole business level of our society that is landlords and said suck it up landlords. It’s not viable long term at all,” she said.
But the ban on evictions is a bandaid on a looming crisis. Even if residents can’t be put out until Jan. 1, 2021, they still accrue debt, fines and late fees included.
“They were probably in this situation because they couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and now they’re going to leave January first with a huge debt,” said Figil, adding that evictions can go on record and leave tenants open to lawsuits.
The pandemic has also created a backlog of cases. The courthouse had closed due to the pandemic, then opened in limited capacity to allow for social distancing. Figel is expecting eviction cases to begin filling up courthouses as soon as the moratorium ends. This all indicates that January will be a messy month for court cases under limited capacity and the increase of eviction cases.
“The ripple effects have hit all layers of our city,” said Figil, adding that no jobs, no money, no tourism industry, and with savings gone means everyone is in “precarious situations.”
By the end of the day, Klein had handed out $22,000 in rent relief, and it was only Monday.