Chattanooga's nonprofit and government leaders are preparing to cushion the blow of an onslaught of eviction cases that have been accumulating throughout the pandemic.
On Thursday, local courts heard the first 53 eviction cases in several months, a precursor for the wave of cases attorney Emily O'Donnell expects to see as protections for those facing eviction during the pandemic run out.
"We already know that the 53 on the docket today was like a practice, it's going to get much, much worse," O'Donnell said during a news conference after court on Thursday. "I overheard a judge say that he thought that, when we really go back big time, he anticipates some late nights to hear all the cases. So we know that this is going to increase, and we don't know what the cost will be."
O'Donnell, along with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, representatives of nonprofit Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise and other community leaders concerned with affordable housing have been preparing for the influx of evictions since the start of the pandemic.
"When the courts closed and the world shut down and it was clear that this was going to have a dire economic effect, almost immediately people just started talking about housing and evictions and the pile-up of eviction cases that would be flooding the court system," O'Donnell said, noting that attorneys, judges, nonprofit leaders and "pretty much the whole legal community" began to brace for the housing impact of the pandemic last summer.
"So what we wanted to do was to organize, while the courts were closed, and try to help people negotiate the settlement of their case before the courts reopened, to reduce that flood of evictions," she said. "So that's how it started, as just kind of an emergency 'Let's see if we can help get this money to these landlords in time to save the tenants from eviction.'"
So, the Eviction Prevention Initiative was formed to do just that. And for the better part of a year, O'Donnell and Ben Danford, an attorney from Legal Aid, have been helping renters settle with their landlords and navigate their legal options, while the city of Chattanooga and nonprofits like Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise have helped those behind on rent to make payments.
But now, it's time for the other shoe to drop, and the backlog of eviction cases is going to be heard in court.
"I feel like last March we recognized that there was a flood of evictions coming, and we have kind of kicked that for a year now, in that it's still there," O'Donnell said. "So now that the courts are opening back up, we feel like 'OK. This is when it gets real,' even though it's been real all along."
The initiative has the funding to operate over the next few months, during which time O'Donnell expects to see the peak of the eviction wave. The initiative was able to prevent each of the clients who appeared in court Thursday from facing eviction.
"For the people that we assisted, we were able to negotiate something in every case. Either more time, or we can get this payment, or 'Hey, her stimulus is coming next week. Can you wait?,'" O"Donnell said of Thursday's court proceedings. "And on all the cases that we were able to negotiate, we had very good outcomes."
Still, she fears that even as they negotiate additional time and cover expenses for renters with back-due rent, the search for new housing on a limited schedule may overwhelm Chattanooga's limited available housing.
"We can get most people another 30 days to find something, or pay off what they owe, but if we don't, or if someone doesn't appear and has an automatic judgment against them, the sheriff can come and put their belongings out on the curb and kick them out in just 10 days," she said. "So we're going to have to figure something out, or it's gonna be really, really bad."
In the city's already strained affordable rental housing market — battered by a climbing market rate, disproportionate income, insufficient affordable housing stock and now the economic effects of COVID-19 — more than 1 in 5 renters is considered "at risk" of losing their housing.
But, finding affordable housing in Chattanooga isn't easy.
According to Tyler Yount, the director of special projects for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, there are some 84,000 renters in the city, about 22% of whom pay at least half of their income toward rent, meaning they are at considerable financial risk of losing their housing.
In addition to those roughly 18,600 high-risk households, another 364 locals live unhoused in Hamilton and Bradley counties, an 81% increase since just last year.
Locally, the city and supporting agencies have around $4 million available in rental assistance from Congress and reallocated city funds, with fewer restrictions on who can access the funds than ever before.
"We have funds that are coming through our Office of Family Empowerment, we have federal funds that we got from the Cares Act, we had money that we repurposed before the Cares Act was passed, and then, more recently, City Council approved part of the Affordable Housing Fund to be used for rent and utility assistance as well," Yount said Friday. "So the good news is, the resources are there now. And, you know, the best thing that we can do is just get those in the hands of people who need it."
But, even with the money to rehouse and assist those at risk, facing eviction or currently unhoused, the city lacks actual affordable units.
"The second part of it is that we have people who, you know, who have already lost their housing. Sometimes that's legally and sometimes that's illegally, but people get evicted. And so we have a lot of people on the streets that we need to house as well," Yount said. "And that depends on landlords being willing to work with us and take what we have. We have lots of money to pay for rental subsidies, move-in incentives, all types of stuff. But our housing market in Chattanooga is so hot that a lot of landlords can get a better deal with market rate.
"And so it takes people that have rental properties with heart to get folks off the street."
Yount said this is almost the exact opposite problem the city has faced historically when units were available but funds were not.
Mayor Berke, whose administration has focused on homelessness and housing throughout his eight years in office, echoed Yount's sentiment on Friday.
"There is no question that the economic devastation created by the pandemic has been most acutely felt by the most fragile families in our community, and we see that in these troubling numbers," he said by email. "As we turn the corner on the pandemic, creating lasting housing security for all Chattanoogans is something that will require the combined efforts of not just local nonprofit agencies and City Hall, but state and federal partners as well.
"Our community has an unprecedented opportunity with federal funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan to provide permanent housing and support to address this issue, but we can only accomplish this if landlords in our community step up to commit to accepting these funds. If you are willing to rent to a person experiencing homelessness and join our fight to end homelessness call the City's Homeless Services division at 423-643-7663 or email them at email@example.com."
But the city will face a change of watch next month as Berke leaves office and is replaced by one of the two candidates vying for his seat in an April runoff election.
Tim Kelly, one of the candidates, held a news conference Thursday to address the increase in homelessness and commit to continuing Berke's support of the eviction mitigation program.
"This is an urgent crisis that demands creative solutions and a real plan. That's why today I want to tell you that my administration will expand the Eviction Prevention Initiative," Kelly said.
Kelly's campaign said after the news conference that there is no set amount of funding he can commit to the program at this stage, but he will consider "all available funding sources" including federal stimulus dollars, to expand and maintain the program.
O'Donnell, who appeared alongside other community leaders and Kelly at the news conference, said Friday that the organizations have been in contact with Kim White, the other mayoral candidate as well.
When asked about the eviction initiative on Friday, White said she too would back the program if elected.
"I will prioritize finding solutions to the mounting challenges faced by our neighbors in need. In addition to continuing the city's support of the Eviction Prevention Initiative, I will collaborate with other community-based organizations and identify federal funding and grants that will assist Chattanooga residents at risk of eviction," she said by email. "I've met with many community organizations that are dedicated to supporting individuals and families facing homelessness and financial hardship. It's clear that the need is greater than ever and continues to rise as a deeply unfortunate side effect of the pandemic. As mayor, I will strengthen the city's support of those organizations that are already in the community making much-needed progress in the areas that need it most."
Both candidates have also met with and backed some of the policies presented by CNE to address affordable housing.
But, whoever is at the helm, O'Donnell says the city will be fighting the pandemic-related housing crisis for a long time to come.
"I think the fallout is not going to be as fast as the pandemic," O'Donnell said. "It's going to take a long time, and there will probably be additional changes that we can't see yet."