Hamilton County eviction boom may be on the way as rents come due amid COVID-19 crisis

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Judge Christie M. Sell reads a document in her courtroom at the City-County Courts Building in 2017.

Hamilton County courts aren't hearing eviction cases this month, and April rent is only about a week late, but the people who work with landlords and tenants are braced for a long slog once this relatively calm period passes.

"It will take months to clear out [these] cases," said Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Christie Sell. "It's going to be a deluge, and we are anticipating that, and we are trying to plan accordingly so every case is heard as quickly as possible."

It will be May 1 at the earliest before the court will reopen to hear eviction cases. In the meantime, multiple agencies are scrambling to direct people to the right resources as housing and other forms of financial support come into uneven focus.

"Depending on their circumstances, there are 16 or 17 resources any given person may be eligible for," said Donna C. Williams, administrator for Chattanooga's Department of Economic and Community Development.

The city's COVID-19 resource site has become a portal where residents can fill out a form and expect to hear back from a member of her team who will help suss out the right next steps, Williams said.

"Our team is calling personally everyone who fills out one of those forms and triaging for that person's particular circumstance," Williams said.

Over the past month, businesses have shut down, jobs have dried up, and unemployment numbers have soared to unprecedented levels as the coronavirus crisis has worsened.

One local landlord has offered an option to waive rent for three months for all residential tenants and some commercial tenants. For residential tenants, he'll extend leases three months, effectively giving tenants 15 months of occupancy for 12 months of rent. There were a few circumstances for commercial tenants that required the group to create alternative relief options.

More Info

Resources for homeowners, renters and landlords compiled by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise:cneinc.org/policyCity forms to request housing relief and other support:connect.chattanooga.gov/covid/covidresources

"Our team began researching ways to provide rent relief to our tenants as soon as the crisis hit in early March," said Todd Phillips, president of Noon Management, which operates commercial, residential and mixed-use developments such as the Lifestyles Center and Fleetwood Building in Chattanooga.

"Working with our local banking partners, we were able to offer every one of our residential tenants a three-month rent deferment, effective for April, May and June of 2020," Phillips said by email. "These are extraordinary times and our top priority is supporting our tenants and our community."

Many other landlords, anticipating their tenants will have financial trouble, have asked them to apply for hardship relief in the form of temporarily deferred rent and waived fees. But, as with the court cases that aren't being heard, the bill for those delays will eventually come due.

The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) found a 12% decrease in the share of apartment households that paid rent through April 5. It's the first review of the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on rent payments with the tracker finding 69% of households had paid their rent by April 5 compared to to 81% that had paid by March 5 and 82% that had paid by the same time last year.

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise has put a 90-day moratorium on evictions, said Martina Guilfoil, president and CEO of the nonprofit housing group.

"The question for all of us will be what happens at the end of 90 days," she said. "Right now it's accruing."

The odds of tenants being able to come up with lump sums to dig out from temporary rent forgiveness are slim, and she's hoping grants, unemployment income and other sources of aid will help fill the gaps eventually, Guilfoil said.

"It's all up in the air while we wait to see what resources are out there for people," she said. "People may get assistance and we'll have to see what that looks like and just have to manage through."

It's not clear whether relief on mortgages or other bills will become available for landlords, and generous breaks may be more than most smaller property owners can bear, said Pat Wagner, an attorney who represents numerous local landlords and is on the board of directors for the Chattanooga Apartment Association.

"It's the small-time ones that I'm getting the most shocked and freaked-out reactions from," he said. "I'm encouraging them to try to work with people.

"At the end of the day, no matter what kind of landlord you are, you can't get these people out right now, so if you want to get a rent payment it's in your best interest to work with them if you can."

At the moment, the number of eviction cases coming to Legal Aid of East Tennessee is stable over last year, said Sheri Fox, executive director.

"I don't think we have seen an extreme uptick yet," she said. "I expect it to come very soon."

When court does resume, the usual Monday morning docket for eviction cases will become three dockets a day every day of the week until the backlog is cleared, Judge Sell said. That will be a tough schedule, she added.

"It's the saddest docket, every Monday it is so sad," she said. "Most people don't just willfully not pay their rent."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.