This story was updated at 10:46 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2022, to correct the spelling of Maeghan Jones' name.
After the judge's gavel opens Chattanooga Municipal Court on a December morning, an attorney strides to the front of the courtroom and holds a stack of papers above his head.
It's Thursday, which means today's docket is full of eviction proceedings.
The attorney, Legal Aid of East Tennessee's Benjamin Danford, projects his voice to rows of people waiting for their cases to be called.
If you're a landlord missing rent, Danford says, there's a state program that can help. If you're a tenant behind on rent, he says, that program can help you, too. The Tennessee Housing and Development Agency still has hundreds of millions of dollars available for pandemic rent relief, he tells the room. But not for long.
"There is a sunset on this program," Danford said. "So if your application is not in by Jan. 6, it'll be too late."
That's the last date to apply for pandemic-related rental relief under the state's program.
Since it began in February 2021, the program has been a lifeline for the nearly 4,000 Hamilton County households that have been approved for aid, as rents rise and inflation has spiked the cost of living.
The money was meant to help low-income renters who make less than 80% of the median income in their area and who were affected by the pandemic. But short staffing and a confusing process meant many renters waited weeks for payments or were deterred by a difficult application. In other cases, advocates said landlords declined to accept money from the program knowing they could make a profit by evicting their tenants and raising rents.
Now, the state housing agency is deciding how to spend the millions of dollars left, while still addressing housing insecurity in Tennessee.
The money will partly go toward eviction prevention efforts around the state, Tennessee Housing and Development spokeswoman Rebecca Anderson said by email, and partly to developing housing for people making less than 30% of median incomes.
Hamilton County housing advocates hope the new program will be run on a local level, to simplify the process. But the details are still undecided, state officials said.
As of Dec. 1, more than $24 million in rental assistance had been paid to 3,727 Hamilton County households. In total, 7,087 households in the county applied for pandemic-related aid during that time.
"Please understand that this number minus the number approved is not indicative of applications denied," Anderson said, "as applications that were submitted could have still been in process after Dec. 1 and approved after that date."
The money goes directly to landlords and can be used to cover unpaid rent -- past and future -- and other costs, including utility payments and late fees. Renters who have been approved for aid ahead of the Jan. 6 deadline will still receive payments after new applications close, Anderson said.
The application asks tenants to show they have been harmed in some way by the pandemic, satisfying a federal requirement for the money. Demand for rental relief has only increased since the start of the pandemic, said Anne Boatner, an eviction attorney with Legal Aid of East Tennessee.
There are other options for rental assistance that aren't tied to the pandemic, through programs including the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga's eviction prevention initiative and a new eviction diversion initiative in Hamilton County courts. Those will still be available, but they don't have access to the same amount of money that the state agency's pandemic program offered.
"The rental assistance was really helpful, but it's not the only way that we resolve cases," Boatner said in a phone interview earlier this month.
At the courthouse, as Judge Gary Starnes moves methodically through the eviction docket, attorneys with Legal Aid and the Community Foundation pull landlords and tenants aside in the hall. They'll hear their situation, try to find a program – pandemic-related or not – that fits, and can negotiate to reduce money owed or work out a payment plan in some cases.
With the end of this program, advocates say they're losing a large and reliable source of relief.
"It's a huge concern. It's been a really important avenue for relief for landlords, and that allows tenants to stay housed," Maeghan Jones, president of the Community Foundation, said in a phone interview this month. "The THDA funding has been really critical for helping to resolve cases to keep people in their homes, and also making those landlords whole."
But the relief isn't immediate.
"From my perspective as an eviction prevention attorney, THDA has been a great resource for tenants, and especially for landlords that have the ability to wait," Boatner said. "It can be hard because the program takes time to process."
Boatner said she's had clients wait six weeks to hear back, "and some much longer." Smaller landlords often can't wait that long to be paid, she said.
AN INEFFICIENT PROCESS
When the program was announced, many of Tennessee's largest counties – not including Hamilton – opted to run their own programs through local organizations. Agencies in and around Nashville, Murfreesboro, Knoxville and Memphis all received tens of millions of dollars from the state, which was distributed based on a local application process.
Local administration wasn't without complications, however. In Memphis, where Shelby County opted to run its own program, MLK50 reported that city staff was running the program ran out of money and closed applications at the end of August after failing to apply for additional funding.
In Hamilton County, local agencies have still played a part, helping people fill out applications for relief. In the final weeks before applications close, the city of Chattanooga's new housing stability facilitator has held several workshops to guide people through the process. The final one is set for Jan. 5, the day before the deadline.
Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise was also tasked with providing application help, but Executive Director Martina Guilfoil said in an interview there's only so much her organization could do. There are certain requirements applicants must meet to show hardship caused by the pandemic, but Guilfoil said her organization wasn't given access to the specific criteria, meaning it couldn't advise people how to meet them.
"We're reluctant to fill that role right now, because people then look at us as, 'but you're supposed to help me,' and you can't," Guilfoil said. "Once you put in your application, I can't control what happens in 35 or 60 days."
Landlords also find it hard to participate in the relief program. Jerome Lyle, a landlord who has worked with Legal Aid for some tenants, said he hasn't participated in the program because of the bureaucracy involved.
"It would be better if it was a local representative," Lyle said while waiting for a hearing in eviction court. "And we could come here and deal with them, instead of online."
Other landlords don't bother with the program because it's more profitable to evict a current tenant and find a new one willing to pay higher rent, said Emily O'Donnell, an attorney with the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga's eviction prevention initiative.
"Rents have skyrocketed," O'Donnell said in a phone interview. "So if they've got somebody in there for $900 a month, they fall behind one time, they can just re-lease it for $1,400 a month."
Landlords can also make hundreds from application fees while between tenants, O'Donnell said.
"There's no incentive for a long-term tenant like there used to be," she said.
At eviction court, Mercedies Acevedo turned to Legal Aid for help. She and her brother were given an eviction notice while waiting on a payment from the state COVID-19 rental relief program, she said. State housing officials told her it was on its way, but it was hard to know the status of her check for sure.
"You can never talk to your case manager, you can never get them on the phone," Acevedo said. "When you call, you talk to somebody different each time."
They'd been approved for relief payments totaling nearly $6,000 while living in another apartment, Acevedo said. When she and her brother had to move into a different place with the same landlord, she said the landlord decided to stop participating in the program. If the $6,000 did come, the landlord told the judge during a hearing, he wouldn't accept it.
Acevedo was willing to pay missing rent, she said, but wasn't given a warning until she found an eviction notice slid under her door the night before she was ordered to appear in court.
When she was approved for rental relief in September, Acevedo said she was told her landlord would receive the money -- to cover six months' past and future rent, plus pet fees -- within 30 days. By Dec. 8, all she had been told was that it was still on its way.
"I'm very thankful that the program exists," Acevedo said. "It's wonderful that it exists. I'm sure that they have a very large influx and probably not enough staff to handle it."
When applications close in January, the program won't stop operating completely -- the state will continue distributing money to tenants and landlords who have already been approved for relief.
But that still leaves hundreds of millions of dollars left to give, according to an estimate from Legal Aid. It's hard to calculate the exact amount that hasn't been spent, Anderson, the state agency spokesman, said in an email this week.
By Dec. 1, Anderson said, the state had given out about $144 million -- out of an initial $384 million the state received from the federal government. That means about half of the original allocation remains.
With just a few weeks left until applications close, housing advocates in Hamilton County are waiting to hear how they can take advantage of the remaining money to keep working to prevent evictions.
"I think everyone is pretty much in the dark," said Boatner, with Legal Aid.
In the next round, local agencies hope they can take the lead.
Guilfoil said a previous rental assistance program funded by federal pandemic relife funds could serve as an example. Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise and United Way of Chattanooga administered the program locally, she said, and were able to issue checks to landlords in just a few days.
"Our hope would be, we could have faster turnaround times if it was a local organization that was focused on it, assuming that they had the wherewithal and the staff capacity to do it," Jones, the Community Foundation's president, said. "We may get some efficiency just by shortening that distance."