COVID-19 brings diverse partners to the table to prevent evictions now and study how best to address housing insecurity over the long term.
A safe place to live is the foundation of family stability. In Chattanooga, COVID-19 is shining a light on the cracks in that foundation. Already more than 225 Hamilton County families have faced, or are facing, eviction due to circumstances that arose in the first months of the pandemic. As the moratorium on evictions in federally backed properties is set to expire, this number is expected to rise. In response, several community partners are working together to prevent homelessness through the Eviction Prevention Project – and as they sprint to meet immediate needs, the coalition is gathering data to better understand the underlying causes of housing instability in our community and determine how best to address the issue with systemic change.
Distressed and Vulnerable
“According to a 2019 THDA report, about 45 percent of renters in Chattanooga are housing burdened,” explains Alexa Lara, Director of Policy at Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), an organization that has led the city’s work to create vibrant neighborhoods for 30 years. “Spending significant amounts of one’s income on housing can put tremendous pressure on families. An event such as lost hours due to illness can be destabilizing. Further, research has shown that low-income women, especially poor women of color, have a higher risk of eviction and that domestic violence victims and families with children also are at higher risk of eviction.
Before COVID-19 appeared in Tennessee, our state processed 53 evictions per day. Wages were not keeping pace with rental costs. As COVID-19 rapidly destabilized the local economy, people lost their jobs and other essential workers stayed employed while risking their health. This reality paired with the pre-existing vulnerabilities in our community lead affordable housing advocates like Lara to anticipate a wave of evictions in the coming months.
“Evictions can be extremely destabilizing for health and stability, and the impacts last for years,” Lara says.
A paper by eviction experts Matthew Desmond and Carl Gershenson titled “Who gets evicted? Assessing individual, neighborhood, and network factors” notes: “Beyond being a leading cause of family homelessness and residential instability, an eviction record can prevent families from benefiting from public housing and can tarnish a leaseholder’s credit rating. When families do find subsequent housing after involuntary displacement, they often accept substandard conditions and relocate to disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
Representation and Connection
The Eviction Prevention Project is a collective effort with a goal of connecting people facing eviction with free legal representation, rent relief, and community resources to keep them housed during this time of economic hardship.
As new evictions are scheduled to come before the courts, CNE reaches out to connect tenants with attorneys from Legal Aid of East Tennessee as well as local private attorneys. Social workers from Southern Adventist University are also involved with cases.
“Every client is assigned an attorney, and a social worker can be brought in as needed,” Lara explains. “This holistic approach is a first for us. Coronavirus shines a light on existing problems in our community. Housing vulnerability is challenging, and if someone needs rapid rehousing or services outside of what an attorney can provide, social workers can help.”
Having counsel during an eviction proceeding often has a dramatic affect. Studies in other cities have found that in cases where tenants have access to representation, they avoided eviction 80 percent of the time. Conversely, when not represented, they were evicted 79 percent of the time.
So what makes the difference?
“Attorneys are fundamental to representing your interests in a courtroom,” Lara says. “They help tenants understand the process and where negotiations can occur. They also protect tenants from signing paperwork that could confirm an eviction without the tenant even knowing that’s what the document means.”
The Eviction Prevention Project is possible because of support from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Their financial commitment gives attorneys the ability to negotiate back rent payments and assists social workers when it’s necessary for a family to find a new home quickly. In addition, the Community Foundation is shepherding work to study the bigger-picture issue of housing, stability, and eviction in Chattanooga to determine how our community might be better equipped for the future.
CALEB Chattanooga has joined with the Eviction Prevention Project consortium to observe court proceedings and collect data. All partners meet regularly to discuss what they are learning. Lara expects the process to yield a deeper understanding of housing vulnerability in our city and recommendations for system-level solutions.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get at the root of these conditions and consider what interventions can take place before an eviction is initiated,” she says.
She admits that right now she is afraid for our community. “I fear that as eviction rates escalate, we won’t have enough options to rehome people at the income they have. What if they don’t have income anymore? It will probably happen disproportionately in neighborhoods where the housing burden is high, and I don’t know what our options will be at such high levels of homelessness. The effects to our neighborhoods, even outside of Chattanooga, could be enormous.”
While the challenge feels oppressive and overwhelming, Lara hopes the work of the Eviction Prevention Project will put housing at the forefront of public conversations in the fall as candidates campaign for Chattanooga mayor and city council positions.
“We are in a moment of political will,” she says. “People want to come to the table who haven’t worked together before. I feel hopeful because in this moment of extreme need and pre-existing challenges, partners are recognizing that affordable housing and tenant protections need to be examined and advocated for. It feels like this is a moment when we can get people to act.”
Benwood is a proud supporter of CNE in all of their work to strengthen neighborhoods and provide affordable housing. To learn more about eviction and the Eviction Prevention Project, watch these short videos on CNE’s facebook page. Video 1 Video 2
If you or someone you know is facing eviction, call CNE’s hotline at 423-756-6271.