Stormy days are ahead unless we do something
“I think if we want our recovery from the growing eviction issue to look the way we wanted to – where people aren’t evicted in the first place, where they have access to quality housing and aren’t discounted from it because of marks on a background check – I think we are going to need a much larger effort than what we’ve seen so far.”~Imani Jasper, NPI
A discussion of the oncoming housing crisis, from a collaboration between StoryBoard, High Ground News and NPI
Last week, for a special episode of the Storyboard 30 podcast, StoryBoard Memphis and High Ground News collaborated to discuss the eviction crisis in Memphis. Host Mark Fleischer invited High Ground’s Emily Trenholm into the virtual studio for a conversation with Imani Jasper, Program Manager of Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., and Austin Harrison, a former associate with NPI and now a neighborhood and housing consultant.
What follows is a partial and edited transcript from the July 28 conversation. To listen to the full podcast, visit the StoryBoard 30 link at StoryBoard Memphis.
HOST MARK FLEISCHER: Today we are going to be talking about housing, and what is a set of crises as a result of the pandemic and economic shutdowns. As many of us in Memphis and around the country are in isolation, workers are working from home and parents are teaching from home, but there’s another part of our community – the traditionally disinvested part of our community – and thousands who are dealing with ongoing issues of neighborhood blight, poor living conditions and worse, an oncoming crisis in a way of mass evictions.
Imani Jasper, first give us an idea as to the kind of adjustments the NPI team is having to make here during the pandemic – the problems of blight just don’t just stop because there’s a pandemic.
NPI’s IMANI JASPER: Right. So like a lot of people we officially left our office around mid-March with the idea that for at least a while we’re going to have to work from home and figure out how to get the work done, because like you said problem properties just don’t stop becoming problems. We’re still doing our best to support Code Enforcement, staying in contact with them and making sure people know to still report those problems to the 311 system.
We still have a whole bunch of other questions about When there’s going to be a vaccine or How much longer do we have to do this? But we can start to address some of the newer topics related to evictions, and we’re part of the new Eviction Settlement Program, which is funded by part of the CARES ACT. It allows for those who are facing an eviction to get legal representation and potentially work out a settlement with your landlord where you aren’t evicted, and you can stay in your home and figure out a payment plan. I also want to mention that there are resources at Home901.org and the Covid-19 Resources tab.
“a calm before the storm“
MARK: This oncoming wave of evictions is not a new topic. As a community, this is something that we’ve been dealing with anyway, pre-pandemic. Memphis unfortunately is one of those cities that has had these eviction issues greater per capita than other cities, and it has been exacerbated because the pandemic. Austin and Emily, you both talked about this way back in February. And now, into August, many are getting eviction notices as we speak. Austin, looking at all the figures in the data you have access to, what does this crisis look like nationwide and here in Memphis?
AUSTIN HARRISON: So the best description I’ve heard nationally, but also in Memphis, is a sort of calm before the storm. The eviction moratorium ran out last week. There’s a lot of talk about potentially extending that moratoria or possibly adding to those unemployment benefits that have slowed the impact. I think the big thing that everyone is focusing on and I think that is especially important for Memphis to focus on is, if we had an eviction radar, of what is heading for our city. Stormy days are ahead unless unless we do something.
If you look at the numbers and at what we’re seeing, you look at the trends and the areas that are seeing the highest impact from unemployment. At the neighborhood level we are able to see how many folks are losing their jobs, and where that is happening, much like the virus itself, is especially concentrated in communities of color.
MARK: It’s unfortunate, and I’ve had this conversation now quite a few times: the pandemic has really simply exacerbated the issues we’ve already had, and only made it that much worse for these communities.
MARK: Emily, High Ground News published a story last week about not only this eviction crisis but also one of our local nonprofits that has stepped in to help out help renters receive assistance.
HIGH GROUND NEWS’ EMILY TRENHOLM: Yeah, the nonprofit is The Works in South Memphis. They of course are also concerned about foreclosure and so they reached out to their people to see how they’re doing and provide assistance with budgeting and one-on-one assistance. That is really beneficial – there’s not a lot of financial resources to support organizations doing that. We need more of that to help people get back on track any way they can.
“If the place you are sheltering in gives you lead poisoning or gives you asthma, it has other negative health or emotional or mental impacts on you. A smart step we can take locally is to hold some of these bad actors accountable on that landlord side.”
EMILY: I’m interested in hearing from Austin and Imani about the interventions that could be helpful in the longer term, because of course there’s bad actors among landlords at any size. But even the responsible landlords and property owners have proformas and mortgage payments to make themselves, and it seems like there needs to be some kind of policy interventions.
AUSTIN: Let me start by saying I think the eviction settlement program that we’ve been talking about is a great first step. But I think the larger system that you’re mentioning Emily, which is a lot of that gets into how rents have skyrocketed in Memphis – most of that is still local folks. But there’s also a fast-growing number of out-of-town investors, private equity firms from the 2008 foreclosure crisis who received bulk sales and bulk transfers of single-family homes. And not to paint those individuals or anyone who works for them as bad people, but from a policy standpoint it becomes very difficult to hold those all those individuals accountable.
Something I’ve advocated for is a way to hold those bad actors accountable through a registration or licensing system on the landlord side. That’s common in other parts of the country, but not so common in the South. A registry would allow us to see those individuals, because those units that are available for $600, $500 or $400 a month are substandard to say the least, and potentially uninhabitable. That creates health issues, that creates education issues, especially in this time of sheltering in place. If the place you are sheltering in gives you lead poisoning or gives you asthma, it has other negative health or emotional or mental impacts on you. A smart step we can take locally is to hold some of these bad actors accountable on that landlord side.
MARK: Folks who are today facing the reality of a potential eviction have rights. First of all, try to reach out to your landlord. Obviously your landlord is not going to be surprised to hear that you might have an issue – I think everyone knows about the pandemic. Part of exercising your rights as a renter is to simply stay in place. It takes months of procedures to get to a point of actually being evicted, and landlords have to go through certain steps to get to that point.
IMANI: The Memphis Fair Housing Center (under Special Programs at Memphis Area Legal Services) does have a rental rights guide – they do not have a lot of them printed and that will probably be difficult to get now – but there are resources that exist that lay out what your rights are as a tenant, what your responsibilities are as a tenant, and what your landlords responsibilities are.
“I think we are going to need a much larger effort than what we’ve seen so far.”
MARK: Our representation – locally, statewide, and nationally on a congressional level – do you think they’ve been proactive enough or have they dropped the ball here?
AUSTIN: My personal opinion is that locally our leaders have done everything they can. I think Mayor Strickland and Paul Young of the Division of Housing and Community Development and those officials have done everything they can. Same goes for the county level. Mayor Harris has pushed the county Community Service Agency as well as the county housing group to be involved in that eviction settlement work.
At the state level the fact of the matter is you have Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville . . . and in Memphis we are looking night and day different from the rest of the state. The majority of our representation comes from the rest of the state where this is a very different issue, so they’re not as close to it. Not to speak ill of any of the agencies that are doing what they can do, but I think from a policy standpoint, just looking at the data objectively, there’s more that they could be doing to set up vulnerable Tennesseans to be protected from eviction.
IMANI: I think if we want our recovery from the growing eviction issue to look the way we wanted to – where people aren’t negatively impacted down the road by having an eviction problem, or they aren’t evicted in the first place, where they have access to quality housing and aren’t discounted from it because of marks on a background check – I think we are going to need a much larger effort than what we’ve seen so far.
Because while it’s been a large issue in Memphis, again, it wasn’t been as much of an issue in the parts of the state that are heavily represented in the state legislature. But now it’s going to be an even larger number of folks with this “Scarlet E” eviction on their record, so there will probably need to be more of an effort to either have that not accounted or accounted less on credit reports in looking at tenants in the future. But also the landlord – to allow them to have their own methods to make sure that they’re renting to someone who can meet the rent – there’s going to need to be a little bit more of an effort than we’ve seen so far.
EMILY: There’s so many impacts of Covid-19 that I’m worried about. And one of the things all four of us have talked about is that it took so long for Memphis to come back from the (2008) foreclosure crisis and for some of our neighborhoods to really rebuild. And I’m concerned that the evictions and the economic impacts are going to really diminish their positive trajectory.
AUSTIN: Emily I think that’s a great point. I want to let the listeners know that if they’re interested in learning more about this connection between the two crises – the 2008 Recession and the current Covid housing crisis – next month there will be a report released in partnership led primarily from the City of Memphis, the Division of Housing and Community Development, and working with Innovate Memphis and myself to produce a report that really frames where we’re at right now.
If Memphis is going to respond to this we need to do everything we can at the local level. Let’s take a look back 10 years ago and see how we responded from 2008 – because how federal dollars are implemented on a local level matters, and while we’re pushing our federal representatives, at the local level there are things within our control. This report will dive deeper into this connection to 2008 and where we’re at right now, how the market rebounded and how the policies implemented in ‘08 created the situation we’re in, and how that could play out in the Covid crisis. Be on the lookout for that report next month.
IMANI: And these are huge crisis that we’re facing. I am the person who always wants to find the silver lining. If there’s any dim piece of optimism to find in any of this is that a lot of the organizations I work with and a lot of the partners that I work with have not stopped grinding hard to try and make Memphis better, even in the face of a pandemic. They are trying to figure out how they can on-the-fly expand housing counseling, to get to any homeowners who are having issues and to make sure they can provide assistance. Whether it’s the work The Works is doing, working hands-on with the people in their community, supporting them with all the different community groups, finding new ways to be engaged and to get feedback even though we can’t come together as we could before. So we have a lot of good talents and groups in Memphis that are also working hard to make sure that we don’t tumble completely back down the hill.
AUSTIN: But it’s important to note that not all nonprofits have been as fortunate as The Works and NPI with significant funding. I would push local governments to give money and include support for nonprofits in future relief bills. And I would also encourage anyone to find nonprofits they believe in that are doing the great work, because a lot of them have fallen on hard times, and I think that (they’re lack of funding) could only exacerbate everything we’ve talked about.
To listen to the full conversation, please listen to the StoryBoard 30 podcast here at StoryBoard Memphis.