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Rental Assistance Programs Are Swooping In To Help As Evictions Resume

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

With the Supreme Court blocking the Biden administration's eviction ban, there's even greater urgency to get billions of dollars in federal rental assistance to those who need it. Shelby County, Tenn., is already facing that challenge. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

PHYLLIS GARDNER: SBTN Apartments v. Delores Eggleston (ph).

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: In a courthouse in Memphis, tenants are packed into eviction court as much as social distancing will allow. When their cases are called, tenants are asked this question by Judge Phyllis Gardner.

GARDNER: Have you talked with anyone or are you interested in the rental assistance program?

UNIDENTIFIED TENANT: I've talked...

WAMSLEY: In case after case, Gardner urges tenants to visit room 134 down the hall, where Memphis Area Legal Services attorneys help tenants start applications for rental aid. One of those attorneys, Freda Turner, stands up in the courtroom to speak about the program.

FREDA TURNER: If you apply, and if you're approved, we will pay up to 12 months of your back rent, plus one month of future rent. We will bring you to zero, and you'll get a fresh start.

WAMSLEY: A fresh start - that's what's new, even if evictions aren't. Thanks to the billions in federal aid, tenants who are behind have a chance to stay in their homes. Due to a federal court ruling in July, judges here in Tennessee haven't been bound by the CDC order for more than a month. To Judge Gardner, the CDC ordered delayed the inevitable, while in Memphis, they started resolving cases.

GARDNER: We've been able to deal with the problems to give these people and the landlords some closure, so that they can move on.

WAMSLEY: The most recent CDC ban was intended to give states and localities more time to get assistance out to renters facing eviction, but it's been slow-going. By the end of July, nationally, just over $5 billion of the $25 billion allocated had been spent. Several states have used less than 5% of the federal money so far. But in Memphis and Shelby County, the picture is different. By July 31, they'd distributed more than half of their $28 million.

Kyla Savage has already been approved for assistance. She fell behind on rent in July after the car she'd been driving for Lyft broke down. Outside the courthouse, she says she's surprised by the court's efforts.

KYLA SAVAGE: It made me feel good to know that they are giving that information out because a lot of people don't know about it.

WAMSLEY: She's still nervous about the months ahead as she looks for work to cover rent for her and her three children.

SAVAGE: Hopefully I find something before it's too late. I don't want to end up back in here, you know. And I really don't want to end up out on the street - me and my kids - so I'm trying.

WAMSLEY: Dorcas Young Griffin's office is in charge of the program for Shelby County government. She says a key to their success has been identifying places with 10 or more tenants behind on rent and using bulk settlements to speed the process of getting money out.

DORCAS YOUNG GRIFFIN: They weren't necessarily being evicted, but they hadn't paid, so you knew that these were folks that needed help. Why not find a way to make it easier to identify those people and, hey, landlords, we can get you paid with this big check versus, you know, just trying to piecemeal things together? And it's helpful for us because we know that instead of just getting one person settled and stable, we could do a hundred at a time.

WAMSLEY: This proactive approach means a lot of tenants can avoid court entirely. Josh Kahane is a partner at Glankler Brown, a law firm in Memphis that represents about 200 multifamily landlords and property managers. He filed the lawsuit, Tiger Lily v. HUD, that resulted in the CDC ban being blocked in Tennessee. He's been active in arranging bulk settlements.

JOSH KAHANE: For most of my clients, I've tried to push them both on the element of this will help you recover some of the past rent delinquencies that exist and, also, in the world we're currently facing, having mass evictions is probably not in anyone's best interest.

WAMSLEY: Kahane practices in six other states that had still been under the CDC ban and where, he says, the disbursement programs are not working so well. But landlords aren't required to accept the federal money, and they can move to evict people. Turner, the legal aid attorney, says, in that case, the tenant who has applied for rental assistance receives federal funds instead.

TURNER: But they've got a move. They've got to find somewhere to go to. The rental market is extraordinarily tight. We have a lot of investors flooding in from other states who find our real estate more affordable than where they are. It's getting hard to rent.

WAMSLEY: One of the people Turner helps in room 134 is Willie Adams. He was working in delivery for a restaurant when he got very sick with COVID-19 last summer. He's now scared to do deliveries to hotels or hospitals, and he's seven months behind on rent.

WILLIE ADAMS: I work for tips, so my income got cut. I only make a fourth of the money that I was making before the virus started and before I got sick.

WAMSLEY: It takes Adams a week to finish his application for rental assistance, after getting help from a tech-savvy friend, tracking down his landlord and making another trip to room 134. He says he'll feel a lot better once he knows the money will come through, and with millions of Americans behind on their rent, that's a feeling shared by many.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF VASEN'S "SLUNKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.