An innovative new court overseeing pending eviction cases provides a creative solution to both Nashville tenants and landlords seeking rent relief for one and lost earnings for the other.
The national moratorium on evictions ends on March 31 and housing advocates have feared 1,800 pending eviction cases would cause a backlog when cases begin to be heard April 1. Through a partnership with nonprofits and government organizations, Judge Rachel Bell created a new court to begin mediation and provide financial support to vulnerable tenants and landlords, seeking to resolve most of these cases before the end of the moratorium.
Housing advocates said that if pending eviction cases are allowed to build up without rent relief, the results could be catastrophic.
“The goal is to get these cases out of court and prevent evictions,” said Sara Figal, director of the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). “We know we’re not solving these people’s problems completely but this certainly helps keep them afloat.”
Before the pandemic began, Bell had been workshopping an original concept of using the housing courts to move people out of chronic housing vulnerability. Months into the pandemic with no end in sight, using the housing courts instead to stave off pending evictions seemed more fitting since homeless residents would have no affordable housing to move into, and landlords would lose any income, said Figil.
“What we want to do is work with the landlords and tenants to keep landlords afloat, keep tenants housed until the pandemic is over,” Figal said.
Housing advocates are still waiting to receive $20.8 million in rent relief through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and although Bell will not oversee cases until next week, NCRC officials have started mediating cases using funds allocated to them through United Way of Greater Nashville. United Way is acting as a grant administrator for both state and local CARES Act programs for rent relief.
These funds are expected to run out in a short period of time, but collaborative efforts will allow housing advocates to continue providing rental assistance through the housing court.
“I’m excited to see how much it grows and what further opportunities this court will be able to have,” said Bell, who has served as a General Sessions Court Judge since 2012. Bell previously established the Music City Community Court, which is designed to mediate cases for non-violent and first time offenders in order to prevent them becoming repeat offenders.
According to Bell, the eviction court is one of a kind in Tennessee. Pending eviction cases are ordered to consider mediation and have 30 days to accept the offer. The cases are then mediated through partners, who then determine rent relief as agreed upon by both the tenant and landlord. Once this is determined, the tenant is then matched up to an affiliated organization or nonprofit that is best suited to meet their needs.
If the case was settled, pending performance and the satisfaction of both parties, Bell will then dismiss the case and make sure it’s not on the tenant’s record.
Landlords are generally willing to participate considering the housing court is potentially offering them a win-win situation. If a tenant is evicted, landlords may never recover lost finances, and they will continue to shoulder the financial burden. With most in-person proceedings being suspended, landlords can get assistance more quickly through mediation, where “they and their tenants may be eligible for rent assistance that covers past debt,” said Figal.
“If the tenant gets evicted, they may end up with nothing,” she added.
Although the court places emphasis on advocating on behalf of the tenant, an agreement between both parties is central to the success of the program. If the landlord chooses not to participate, tenants may be referred to Legal Aid, a partner organization that provides legal assistance to low-income people. An eviction on record will inevitably lead to a vulnerable situation for the tenant, which housing advocates hope to avoid.
It’s important to recognize the impact to the landlord as well as the tenant, especially landlords of smaller properties paying mortgages and taxes, according to Lisa McCrady, special assistant to the executive director at the Metro Action Commission.
“It’s a domino effect,” she said.
The amount of rent relief is dependent on each case. Tenants must prove that their finances have been affected by the pandemic. While some may only qualify for three months of rent relief, others may prove that they have been unable to pay for rent since the pandemic began and receive up to 12 months in back rent. Several months of rent may also be paid in advance to ensure the tenant finds their footing.
The mediation process is central to a mutual agreement between landlords and tenants, with landlords agreeing not to evict tenants once the mediation is finalized.
“Mediation really helps both tenants and landlords to understand that they have a common problem,” said Figal. “They tend to leave mediation with a much clearer and healthy communication.”
Cases that are not resolved will be transferred back to the Nashville General Sessions Court, which suspended all in-person proceedings until March 31. With a limited amount of cases per docket, there may be significant delays before a decision is finalized on a pending eviction case.
The U.S. Treasury is still reviewing whether they will require social security numbers for tenants to receive CARES Act funds for rent relief, but in specific cases, tenants can be referred to partners who do not require social security numbers.
Property managers of large apartment complexes have also advocated for their tenants and continue to work with housing advocates. Partnerships with the Metro Action Commission, Circuit Court Clerk Richard Rooker and a number of community housing organizations are making sure Davidson County tenants have resources available to them.
“It’s what makes life feel valuable to all of us to know we are part of a community that is acting in the best interest of the community,” said Figal.