Nashville housing attorneys are preparing for an onslaught of eviction proceedings as the Davidson County General Sessions Court on Monday began processing cases after several months of COVID-19 moratoriums and delays.
“We’re really expecting a tidal wave of evictions,” said Kerry Dietz, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.
The patchwork of tenant protections at the local, state and federal levels has gradually fallen away as courts have reopened and moratoriums expired. Tenants are losing the protections as a boost to federal unemployment payments instituted toward the beginning of the COVID crisis has since been slashed.
Dietz said she can count the number of full-time tenant attorneys in Nashville on one hand, and that small group is not equipped to handle the hundreds, if not thousands, of cases in the pipeline. But tenants facing eviction and the attorneys who represent them have some additional resources: Millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds earmarked for rent assistance are being distributed, and Dietz said she recently trained a group of attorneys volunteering to represent Nashvillians in eviction cases pro bono.
Bass Berry & Sims is offering Marc Tahiry, a commercial real estate lawyer at the firm, as a full-time law clerk in the General Sessions court for at least three months to focus on eviction cases. According to David Esquivel, pro bono member at Bass, Tahiry will work on identifying eviction cases where financial resources or legal representation could help a tenant remain in housing.
“This is one way we thought we could offer some help,” Esquivel said. “He’s there to have another person for the judge to look to and help out in individual cases where it looks like somebody could benefit from having more attention to their case. If you’ve got 600 cases on your docket, it’s going to be harder to spend more time on the cases where something could be done. … It’s such an overwhelming circumstance. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to identify particular people and particular cases where we can make a difference.”
The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office has continued serving eviction notices in recent months, but only from cases finalized before courts shut down. According to the sheriff’s office, evictions have dropped off precipitously this summer compared to the mark of last summer. In June, July and August of this year, the sheriff’s office served 192 eviction notices, compared to 529 during the same period in 2019.
But evictions are expected to rise dramatically in the coming weeks as landlords can again bring cases against tenants unable to pay rent during the pandemic. According to Dietz, judgments become final after 10 days, so a new round of them could begin as soon as Sept. 10.
“A lot of people have lost their source of income and they don’t have the money,” said Julie Yriart, an attorney with the Tennessee Fair Housing Council. “A lot of landlords, they get it. ... The question remains, how long is everyone going to be patient? There’s going to be a large amount of evictions.”
In many cases, there’s little a lawyer can do to help a tenant who hasn’t paid rent since the start of the pandemic beyond making sure the landlord's lawyer dotted her or his I's and crossed the T's. Despite the eviction moratoriums, tenants in most cases still owe landlords rent for the pandemic months.
“There’s no legal defense for not paying your rent,” Yriart said.
Instead, lawyers like Yriart and Dietz said, the goal is to negotiate with the landlord, ideally before the case reaches the court. Sometimes, tenants and landlords can agree to a payment plan to cover the back rent. Other times, the parties mutually agree that the tenant will move out without “the scarlet E of an eviction on their record,” as Dietz said. The eviction record can make it more difficult for tenants to secure future housing, particularly in a tight housing market like Nashville’s.
And Dietz warned that the pandemic that exacerbated the looming eviction problem could in turn be fueled by mass evictions, as people turned out of housing end up in more congregate living situations by staying with friends or family.
“Our attempts to stop the spread of the virus really are intertwined with our ability to keep folks housed,” she said. “You can’t shelter in place if you don’t have shelter.”