The Investigators: Could COVID-19 cause Memphis’ next housing crisis?

Evictions will likely rise post-coronavirus, causing a ripple effect
Updated: Jun. 18, 2020 at 8:59 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - While thousands of Shelby County residents are facing eviction right now, more renters could be forced from their homes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers say the influx could push Memphis into its next housing crisis.

Eviction hearings resumed Monday, after the Tennessee Supreme Court had shut down in-person hearings due to the pandemic.

Steve and Cora Jett were in court two days later. Facing eviction, they had three options: pay what their apartment complex says they owe, go to trial and fight or move out.

The Jetts said they would pay.

“I just really wanted to get it over with,” Steve Jett told The Investigators.

The Jetts, like most tenants who come to court and face eviction, didn’t have lawyers and live on a fixed-income.

“I think it goes back a lot to the issue of poverty and the amounts of money that folk are making,” said Honorable Betty Moore, a Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court Judge.

Judge Moore typically tries all types of cases in General Sessions but right now, she and two other judges are only hearing evictions cases.

There are thousands of cases waiting for adjudication and most, if not all, were filed pre-pandemic.

“Anytime anyone comes to these courts and you have to make a decision whether or not that person will be allowed to remain in his or her home or evicted. It’s gut-wrenching,” said Judge Moore. “And the reason why is that people will come to court and tell me their stories and oftentimes their story is tragic. They’re in such a bad position, and especially with COVID, that they can no longer maintain their home.”

Judge Moore believes we haven’t yet seen the worst of what COVID-19 will do to the rental market in Memphis.

Austin Harrison, a Memphis housing researcher and consultant, agrees with Judge Moore’s assertion.

“Do you believe we’re on the precipice of the next housing crisis,” asked The Investigators.

“Yes,” said Harrison. “Especially if unemployment continues to trend upwards and households have problems paying their bills.”

Harrison recently created a map to show which neighborhoods are most vulnerable to evictions post-pandemic using census data and unemployment numbers.

“This map and this research shows that it’s a recipe for disaster in a lot of ways,” he said.

According to Harrison, traditionally stable neighborhoods are showing now signs of vulnerability including Whitehaven, Raleigh and Midtown because many renters in those neighborhoods have good jobs but not a lot of savings, or they work in industries that were completely shut down by coronavirus.

“The areas that are poor are definitely vulnerable and definitely have issues that they’re facing - those North and South Memphis neighborhoods - but the most vulnerable areas are predominantly working class neighborhoods,” said Harrison.

Harrison said that if 20% of Shelby County residents can’t pay their rent for one month, it would create a $60 million dollar loss to the local economy.

It would happen because if a tenant is unable to pay their bills, their landlord may not be able to pay their bills either, and so on.

“It’s a snowball effect,” said landlord David Moore.

Moore owns or manages over 60 properties in Memphis. Most of those properties are considered ‘affordable’, with the average rent being $650 per month.

We met him at one of his homes where the tenant was recently evicted. Moore said the tenant hadn’t paid for five months but he couldn’t take back his property because court was closed.

Another 15 of his tenants are currently behind on rent because they were out of work due to the pandemic. He’s waiting on tens of thousands of dollars.

Yet, Moore said most of his tenants are on payment plans and eviction is always a last resort.

“We work together. You have to work together until you can’t resolve it. And when you can’t resolve the situation, unfortunately, it leads to having to remove the tenant from the property,” he said.

Judge Moore believes more of these battles are brewing.

However, she sees the silver lining as landlords and tenants seem to be working together in ways they never did before COVID-19.

“That’s what we want,” said Judge Moore. “We want the cases to be worked out amongst each other because that way, people aren’t being evicted or they stay long enough to make arrangements to do whatever it is they want or need to do.”

Harrison believes the long-term solution includes more quality, affordable housing; more rights for tenants; and more government assistance.

However, Harrison believes unless those remedies come quickly, a housing crisis is most certainly heading our way.

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