Eviction Settlement Program Helps Memphis Area Landlords, Tenants Weather Epidemic

August 31, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has broadly impacted American society, but some of its harmful effects have been concentrated on the country’s most vulnerable citizens. For many of those struggling economically, the pandemic has threatened not only their health and their livelihoods, but their homes as well.

That is why lawyers, judges, and government officials in Memphis and Shelby County worked together over the past few months to implement a program that helps both tenants and landlords affected by COVID-19. The Eviction Settlement Program connects attorneys with tenants who are in danger of eviction due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic. The attorneys work with these tenants and their landlords to negotiate a financial arrangement that will keep the tenants from being evicted.

In practice this can mean negotiating a lower price for rent for a certain number of months or using money allocated from the federal CARES Act to cover some portion of missed rental payments. Overall, around $2 million from the CARES Act has been allocated for this program by Memphis and Shelby County officials.

The program is managed by Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., with the cooperation of Memphis Area Legal Services, and the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law’s Clinical Program, which is providing faculty, staff, and students to work on cases and assist volunteer attorneys in completing the program’s work

Memphis attorney Webb Brewer helped spearhead the program, alongside Steve Barlow, a Memphis attorney and president and co-founder of Neighborhood Preservation Inc. Brewer said that the idea for the program started shortly after passage of the CARES Act, which provided money to states and local government for pandemic relief, in late March. Brewer explained that at that time other cities around the country set up programs that issued grants directly to renters or homeowners on a first come, first serve basis. After seeing how quickly funds became depleted under this model, Brewer, Barlow, and other involved attorneys decided to come up with a different plan. 

“We came up with the idea of trying to negotiate with landlords, making it more of a legal representation project that had the backing of a fund created by the city and county,” he said. “Because landlords are hurting too from this and part of our belief was that a tenant in hand, especially if they had been a reasonably good tenant before this crisis, was better than the unknown, which might be not being able to rent the place.”

In the early stages of the effort, Brewer, Barlow, and others approached public officials and local government for their help in organizing the program.  One of those consulted was Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court Judge Betty Thomas Moore, who presides over many eviction cases in her courtroom.

She said many of the people she sees in court facing eviction are “just everyday working people” who suddenly find themselves in a precarious financial situation.

“They never thought it would happen to them,” she said. “They’ve got a pile of bills that have to be paid. They may have four or five children and don’t have any other place to go.”

In the early months of the pandemic a moratorium was put in place on evictions, which bought tenants some time if they needed it. That moratorium was lifted in Tennessee in June, with 9,000 eviction cases pending. Due to special health and safety precautions that mandate social distancing and limiting the number of participants in the courtroom, Judge Moore now hears eviction cases on just Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Since the Eviction Settlement Program went into effect several weeks ago, she has been happy to tell tenants who have been affected by the pandemic in her courtroom that help may be available to them.

“These folks are anxious to get this information because that means their stuff is not going to be set out on the street,” she said. “Everybody’s faces light up, including mine, because I think, ‘Hey I’m part of something that may make a difference.’”

Judge Moore has also seen how the program has aided landlords, many of whom are struggling economically as well.

“All landlords are not big corporations that may be able to absorb some of the economic impact,” she said. “A lot of the landlords that come through are just regular folks who decided to get into real estate. A lot of them still have mortgages on their properties. They still have taxes to pay, and bills to pay.”

She has found that, for the most part, landlords are happy to work with responsible tenants who have been hurt by the pandemic.

“As a landlord, you’re trying to find a tenant who is stable, who is going to stay in the property and keep the property up,” Judge Moore said. “They would much rather keep a good tenant in the property and do whatever they can within reason to keep that person there.”

Intake for the program is largely done using an online portal. There, people provide basic contact information and are asked a series of questions about their financial predicament, including whether or not they are behind in rent due to the pandemic.  People who do not have access to the internet are encouraged to call 211 where an operator can assist them to complete the online application.

Applicants who make it through the initial screening process are then referred out through Memphis Area Legal Services, via its Private Attorney Involvement program and through the University of Memphis Law School’s Clinical Program, which includes professors and students. Clients are put in contact with volunteer attorneys who then discuss potential resolutions with them.

“Let’s say a person was three months behind in rent, and we took the case in July,” Brewer said. “We might propose to pay some percentage of the rent for those three months.”

The tenant’s attorney then communicates with the landlord’s attorney to try to come to an agreement.

“We try to get the best deal we can,” Brewer said. “A big element of that is when will the client be able to resume payments? Can they pay a portion of the rent themselves?”

There is no set formula for how much money a client will receive. Some urgent cases may get more than others.

“I had a case recently where it was a single parent with three small children, the youngest of whom was 4 months old,” Brewer said. “That was a pretty compelling situation so we might be willing in that instance to pay a little bit more or go a little bit further in the future than if it was a single young person.”

That being said, all agreements are conditioned on the tenant being able to continue residence in the property they are renting. Landlords also must promise to make necessary repairs and agree to maintain the property in habitable condition.

After a resolution has been reached, payments are handled through a county agency. Money is disbursed directly to the landlord on behalf of a tenant. Generally, the eviction case is then dismissed.

Cases are handled mostly by volunteer attorneys with the help of law students.

David M. Cook is a semi-retired Memphis attorney who has been volunteering for the program. Cook, a former president of the Memphis Bar Association, has long been a proponent of pro bono work, having helped start a monthly pro bono clinic at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library that has assisted upwards of 12,000 people since its inception.

“I’ve always been heavily involved with pro bono work here in Memphis because it seems to me it really isn’t optional,” he said. “It’s mandatory; it’s how we compensate society for the privilege of a law license.”

Cook has helped recruit attorneys through the Memphis Bar Association over the past few months. So far, he said, 57 lawyers have volunteered for the program. They have been matched with 70 clients in danger of eviction.

One way he has helped attract lawyers is through educational efforts. He recently gave a presentation for attorneys on landlord/tenant law.

“It’s not a topic most members of the bar are generally familiar with,” he said. “There’s a statute on it that’s not too lengthy. I gave them the background information they needed so they would be more comfortable wading into this.”

Assisting him in his efforts are a young lawyer who he is mentoring and two law students from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. So far they have handled around 20 cases. He sees the program as a valuable learning experience for those just entering the profession.

“A lawyer can offer what no one else can, and that’s the ability to take away the burden,” he said. “When we can do that for people who are facing such a horrible outcome, it’s essential that we do it.”

Katy Ramsey Mason is an assistant professor at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She and Associate Professor Daniel Schaffzin have taken the lead on recruiting students for the program at the law school. Ramsey Mason saw the program as a perfect chance for students to get meaningful experience in an area of public concern.

“This was the summer and a lot of students were looking for opportunities to do some substantive legal work and also help out the Memphis community during this time of crisis,” she said.

Between 15 and 20 students are now actively volunteering with the program, doing a variety of work. They may call clients to gather more information about their situation or go get paperwork from court. Some have even spoken with landlords’ attorneys to get the ball rolling on a settlement. In cases that have gone to court, students have been able to attend if they wanted to and observe the hearing.

The benefits to students are numerous in Ramsey Mason’s view.

“First of all, they’re helping people in a meaningful way,” she said. “For many of them that is a really important benefit for this program. In addition, they are getting to know attorneys in the community by working with them. They’re beginning to make connections with attorneys. They’re getting some mentoring from attorneys they’re working with, and they’re getting exposure to how different people practice law, which I think is a really important experience to have as a student.”

In addition to their work negotiating settlements between tenants and landlords, the Eviction Settlement Program has also been successful in getting a number of eviction cases dismissed for violating provisions of the CARES Act. That act put in place a federal moratorium on evictions for those living in federally subsidized housing or those living in housing with federally-backed mortgages.

“We have a data partner who was examining court filings and there are several public websites with lists of properties with mortgages insured by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, and we’ve found a pretty large number of instances where evictions were filed on properties that should not have been,” he said. “We’ve been able to get a lot of those cases dismissed.”

In cases where judgments had already been taken, Eviction Settlement Program lawyers have been able to get many of those set aside.

“That’s a big factor too because the more cases we can prevent that way and not have to spend money settling that preserves our fund to help more people,” Brewer said.

Currently at least, the worst-case scenario many feared about the number of Memphis and Shelby County residents who would be evicted due to the pandemic has not come to pass. Brewer chalks that up to the moratoriums that were put in place, financial assistance that the CARES Act provided to citizens, and fewer days of eviction hearings in court each week.

The federal moratorium, however, ended near the end of July, which means that people can be evicted starting September 1, after they have been given a 30-day notice. Expanded unemployment benefits ended near the end of July as well.

That leaves Brewer and others uneasy about how many evictions could take place in the coming weeks.

“What we have been telling people is that we are kind of anticipating a delayed tsunami,” he said. “I’m really concerned now that we may start seeing a bigger floodgate open of evictions.”

The Eviction Settlement Program has been designed to run until the end of the year or until funds run out, whichever comes first. Brewer said that local government has been very supportive of the program so far, to the extent that some have even discussed transitioning the model it into a pilot project to prevent homelessness after the pandemic is over. In the nearer term future, there are also plans to work on foreclosure cases.

Whatever the future holds, Brewer and others working for the Eviction Settlement Program are heartened by the response that the Memphis-area legal community has made to confront this pressing issue. As long as the program runs, they are confident there will be attorneys waiting to help.

“This has really been a very positive community response to a problem that is very palpable here in Memphis and Shelby County,” Ramsey Mason said. “It’s been really great to see the legal community, students, and attorneys rallying round this issue and doing what they can to help address what for many of our fellow Memphians and fellow Shelby County residents is a really dire situation.”