Mass evictions are coming. This South Memphis nonprofit is part of the solution.

A national wave of evictions loom as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to build momentum. Memphis could be one of the nation’s hardest-hit metropolitan areas.

There is no comprehensive list of national eviction information, but reports show disturbing national trends and signs of a wave of mass evictions.

Courts are open or reopening. Businesses are closing again and unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. According to CNBC, 32% of U.S. households have not made their July housing payments, most of which were due July 1.

Up to 28 million Americans are at serious risk for eviction.

The Works, Inc. is taking steps to help their residents stay in their homes. The nonprofit community development corporation is based in South Memphis but rents and mortgages properties in other areas of Memphis, including Frayser to the north.
Tanja Mitchell, director of community engagement at The Works, Inc. The Works is a nonprofit community development corporation based in the Soulsville area of South Memphis.
“A lot of people lost their jobs and didn’t have a steady income,” said Tanja Mitchell, The Works' director of community engagement.

“In addition to being worried about the pandemic, health, and social distancing, we also knew that our residents had a need and a concern about [housing]—'How am I going to pay my rent?,' or ‘How am I going to pay our mortgage?'"

When Shelby County civil courts resumed operations in June, the Commercial Appeal reported a backlog of 9,000 eviction notices but most were pending pre-shutdown.

“The evictions that just hit were already happening. They were not as a result of COVID,” said Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works. “The thousands of evictions were already set to happen because they happen every month.”

A direct comparison can't be made between for-profit property management companies and a nonprofit like The Works, which has grants and subsidies to help support gaps in payments. But ultimately, nonprofits lenders and landlords are still responsible for their residents' debts and have to collect payments to continue operating.

Letters from landlords and property management companies nationwide demanding full payment and threatening eviction started making the rounds on social media as early as March.

“I saw some letters, not from us of course, that were real," Mitchell said. "I really couldn’t believe that here we are in the middle of a pandemic, something that is new to the entire world, and you actually had landlords who were harassing their tenants to get their rent on time."

"We did the complete opposite."

the Works' wAY

In late March, The Works mailed out letters, sent emails, and made phone calls asking their renters and homeowners if they were experiencing a loss of income or other hardships resulting from the public health crisis.

The CDC aided seven mortgage holders by deferring their mortgage payments. They also provided five renters with a cumulative $5,000 in rental assistance. They then paused negative credit reporting for all residents until August.
Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works, Inc. holds a redlining map drawn in the 1940. The map is proof of intentional housing policies meant to undermine black wealth and black communities.
“We did the human thing, we did the right thing. We worked with them to see how much they could contribute, and we would make up the difference,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said they're also providing a payment modification option at the end of the deferral period. 

“We will take any remaining balance and recalculate their loan. What that will do is add a month or two at the end of the term [rather than eviction]," she said. 

The Works does the human thing from the beginning of their resident relationships.

They recognize that low- and moderate-income renters and borrowers, especially black residents, may not have the credit that traditional landlords and lenders require. They know there are substantial barriers to accessing that credit and that those barriers were intentionally placed. The CDC uses non-traditional measures like consistent payment of phone bills to approve their residents.

They help residents establish household budgets that include emergency contingency plans, but no plans could foresee a months-long global pandemic. 

Austin is concerned residents won't be able to stretch their remaining funds through fall. 

“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of COVID," she said. "I’m looking at what’s going to happen in August, September, and October. I always predicted that the fall was going to be the worst time for families already on the edge."

Children take a ride down Tate Avenue in South Memphis. Behind them sits a vacant apartment building. (Andrea Morales)

Memphis: The "Eviction Capital" of the U.S.

The U.S. was in a housing crisis before the pandemic. The Memphis Business Journal dubbed Memphis "the country's eviction capital" as early as 2017 when an Apartment List study of its 8 million users and 41,000 surveys showed the highest rate of prior evictions nationwide.

Those evictions were primarily targeted at black Memphians, even when adjusting for income and education.

At the 2019 State of Memphis Housing Summit, city officials and local experts confirmed that private equity firms and large-scale property management companies based outside of Shelby County are a major part of the problem.

More than 40% of Memphis' rental property owners reside outside of Tennessee with no connection to the city or their tenants. They're aggressive with evictions and are high-volume contributors to code violations and in-home environmental hazards.

June 15 was the first day Shelby County courts reopened to eviction hearings. The three management companies with the most cases were seeking 64 total evictions.

Now the city braces as the swell of COVID-19 evictions reach the courts.
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Read more articles by Baris Gursakal.

Baris Gursakal is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is an Istanbul native who grew up in Memphis, and has an interest in public policy and social justice issues.