As federal protections have ended, Memphis evictions have soared

By: - September 28, 2021 5:00 am

(Photo: Getty Images)

To Cindy Ettingoff, executive officer at the Memphis-Area Legal Services, a pandemic and rising evictions often mix chaotically in courtrooms.

At Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court, dockets were restricted to 50 cases to allow for safe social distancing early in the pandemic, but a growing backlog of eviction cases bumped the number to 100 cases per docket.

“That’s a hundred per docket, six divisions, twice a day. So that’s 1,200 cases per day,” said Ettingoff. 

Still, considerations for social distancing were still observed on a recent day, and in the courtrooms, 10 clients with their attorneys were allowed to stay. The remaining 90 crowded in the hallway and hovered near the doors to hear their names called among the noisy atmosphere. 

“Some of these people are old or handicapped and they can’t stand around there. They have the benches marked off so you can’t sit on them, so a lot of them will wander around to find somewhere to sit and they miss hearing their name called,” she said. 

Nearly 18 months into the pandemic, millions of renters have exhausted their savings, lost their jobs, or fell victim to other COVID-related disasters. The government provided a wide range of safety nets through the last 18 months to stave off a flood of evictions, including a moratorium that ended on July 31. 

But in West Tennessee, renters have not had moratorium protections since a Memphis federal judge ruled in April that the government had overstepped its authority. Almost immediately, courts started seeing an uptick in evictions.

Since March 2020, more than 20,000 evictions have been filed in Memphis courts. This year, Memphis courts saw 457 evictions filed between Aug. 22 and and Aug. 29– highest amount this year–according to the Eviction Lab, a Princeton University-led project tracking evictions nationwide. 

Rent and utility relief funds were available to Shelby County residents through the COVID-19 Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program, although guidelines from the Biden Administration slowed down the process and created a strict criteria for renters to qualify.  Applications had to be done through the Home 901 portal, which required a phone or computer to access. 

While some tenants faced technological difficulties, others had already lost internet and phone utilities due to their inability to pay. Tenants could go through an organization or a mediation lawyer for assistance, but callbacks are needed to complete the application, and “some of those people we just can’t find,” said Ettingoff. 

According to a policy scorecard by Eviction Lab, Tennessee earns a .53 score out of a possible 5. Among the problems for renters  cited are that landlords were not prohibited from raising rents mid-COVID pandemic, there is no grace period to pay rental debt accrued during the pandemic and the state does not guarantee legal representation to those facing eviction.

“They won’t answer the phone because they’re afraid or because their phones were cut off,” she said, adding that phones are not covered under utility assistance. “Since these are federal dollars, it’s hard to get all the info they require all at once and then lose contact with the resident.”

Miscommunication can occur with the landlord as well. A tenant fighting eviction will be asked to return to court in two weeks, after a judge has reviewed their case. In the meantime, tenants seeking mediation can qualify for the funds to avoid eviction, but because the funds will take another week to reach the landlord, mistakes happen. Landlords may refuse to wait another week, lawyers may be unable to reach the landlord before the court date or landlords may receive the money but forget to cancel the eviction. Once the mediation process is completed, both tenants and the landlord will sign a settlement agreement, but the eviction process can continue if the landlord forgets to inform their attorney.

“If the tenant doesn’t show up in court because they signed the settlement agreement because they’re thinking there shouldn’t be a court date, and rightfully there shouldn’t be,” she said. “You can still have somebody show up on your doorstep in 10 days and erroneously evict you.”  

Others face eviction for reasons unrelated to the pandemic and do not qualify for rent relief. According to Ettingoff, a surprising amount of people have lost their disability security in the past few months. Others experienced medical difficulties before the pandemic began in March 2020 and lost their jobs while receiving extended care. Although mediation attorneys can argue that job loss was related to COVID-19, federal funds are asking for strict guidelines to be met. 

Those who initially avoided eviction may only be able to stave off homeless for so long. Once a landlord receives rent relief, they agree to house their tenants for 45 to 90 days, depending on the city, but the lingering pandemic and uncertain economy means many tenants have been unable to financially recover. Rent relief may pay for a month of rent to give people a head start, but that keeps them only temporarily stable.

The majority of those facing eviction are women of color. According to the Household Pulse Survey Data from the Census Bureau, even though Black women represent less than one in 10 renters, they account for nearly one in five of those behind on rent. These Black women come from housing situations where they are the primary breadwinners and worked in the service industry. 

As work continues to dry up, the women–along with their children and extended family– will be on the streets as early as mid-November, unless more funds are available. 

“COVID made poor people so much poorer,” said Ettingoff. 

A renter waits outside Davidson County General Sessions Court in November, waiting to see if she can work out a deal with her landlord to stay in her apartment.(Photo: John Partipilo)
A renter waits outside Davidson County General Sessions Court in November, waiting to see if she can work out a deal with her landlord to stay in her apartment.(Photo: John Partipilo)

There were 129 evictions between Sept. 12 and Sept. 19, but evictions are expected to pick up again. 

Tenants that are facing eviction are advised to seek out rent relief, community resources and organizations that advocate for renters-rights. Legal Aid Society has offices throughout the state and offers legal assistance for low-income residents. 

“Make sure you’re speaking to an attorney. They can tell you what your rights are and tell you what your responsibilities are so that you don’t misinterpret something or google the wrong thing and end up with an eviction on your record, which could lead to lifelong ramifications,” said Zac Oswald, a managing attorney at Legal AId Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. 

Tenants who show up to their court date will have their cases extended and are encouraged to enter Memphis’ rental assistance program. In a room down the hall, Memphis-Area Legal Services attorneys wait to help tenants start applications.

Legal Aid cannot offer assistance to undocumented residents and those who don’t meet the income requirements, but tenants can still receive free legal advice through the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.