At the time, there was a federal moratorium on evictions, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It applied to any tenant who made less than ninety-nine thousand dollars a year and faced eviction for nonpayment of rent. It was bolstered in some states by additional protections, but not in Tennessee, where some landlords continued to serve eviction notices. When an eviction case is decided in a landlord’s favor, that eviction remains on the renter’s record for at least seven years, and the resulting civil judgment can show up on the renter’s credit report, too. With the help of the Listening Project, Grimes called the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, a nonprofit law firm, and was connected with Linda Blackwelder, an attorney who takes on housing cases in seven Tennessee counties.
Blackwelder lives on a farm with a menagerie of farm animals and pets. She got a master’s degree in geology and worked for an environmental consulting firm specializing in hazardous-waste remediation before studying law, in Nashville. From a distance, she might look like an idealist, but she has a pragmatism that comes from steady work with people who are poor. She can help only a tiny fraction of the people who seek her out, and she is often their last hope.
When it comes to housing law, the problems that Blackwelder confronts begin with an asymmetry of information. Some landlords have done business with hundreds or even thousands of tenants, and they can generally afford legal advice. Many tenants do not know their rights, and lower-income tenants are typically unable to hire an attorney to inform them of what they are. It is often more rational simply to do whatever the landlord asks—to be an “easy” tenant—than it is to push for fair treatment, particularly given the risk of retaliation, especially in a small town like Shelbyville, where the same few people own the majority of affordable properties. What if no one is willing to rent to you again? What if they refuse to renew your lease?
More than thirty states have adopted all or part of the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA), or similar legislation, which establishes the landlord-tenant relationship as one based on contract law instead of property law, making the obligations of each party to the other explicit. URLTA, which was drafted in 1972, requires that landlords “do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition” and that tenants keep the premises “as clean and safe as the condition of the premises permit.” Tennessee has adopted the law nearly in full, but with a provision that makes it applicable only in counties with more than seventy-five thousand residents. Bedford, with around fifty thousand residents, misses that mark. Blackwelder said that she sometimes gets calls from confused clients who looked up their rights online and found hope in an URLTA law that applies in Rutherford County, twenty miles away, but not in theirs.
In Bedford, and places like it, renters rely on a hodgepodge of common and statutory law to moderate their relationships with landlords. They can also contact the Better Business Bureau if the landlord is engaging in unethical business practices, or the local health department or codes department if there are safety or health hazards. But, if living conditions are particularly bad, there is a chance that the county will condemn the property, leaving the renter with nowhere to go.
The pandemic made an already complicated rental landscape more complicated, Blackwelder said. The CARES Act placed a moratorium on evictions based on nonpayment of rent in March, 2020, pausing some court proceedings. (The moratorium only applied to properties “participating in federal assistance programs or with federally backed financing,” which account for somewhere between a quarter and a half of occupied rental units nationally, according to one study.) That expired in the summer. Blackwelder was in court, in August, when those proceedings resumed. “First day back in court, I think I saw fifty people get evicted that day, one after the other after the other,” she told me. “I was representing two people that day. Most of them don’t have attorneys—they don’t have to be assigned an attorney in a civil case. And then, on top of that, a lot of people don’t even show up, and they end up getting evicted by default. I saw a woman, they wheeled her in—she was in hospice—and she got evicted.”
A lack of legal representation is the norm when it comes to eviction proceedings in Bedford County. “I’m the only Legal Aid attorney for eviction cases for seven counties, and it’s only fifty per cent of my practice,” Blackwelder said. “I do domestic-violence family law and I do housing law, so we can’t help everyone who applies. Those cases, we have to triage them and evaluate them.” On any given day in court, Blackwelder might represent two people dealing with housing issues while five to ten others face the judge and their landlords alone. There are private attorneys who do pro-bono work, but most people in the region have no one.
Blackwelder picked up Grimes’s case and went to court with her in October. She noted that the one-page lease had a number of unenforceable clauses in it, including the one which waived all of the tenant’s legal rights if a tenant broke a rule. Grimes had filled out a form confirming her eligibility for the moratorium. She presented it to the judge, and the eviction was dismissed.
The Listening Project had set ambitious goals for 2020: first, help to pass legislation making URLTA apply to Bedford County; second, create a commission, made up largely of low-income renters, to study and recommend solutions to the county’s affordable-housing crisis; third, partner with the local government to secure grants to pay for legal representation for low-income renters. But the pandemic scrambled everything. By the fall of 2020, there were hundreds of tenants in the county who, like Grimes, had been served with eviction notices and didn’t know whether they could stay in their homes or not. The members of the Listening Project focussed on helping as many of those people as they could.
When the C.D.C. moratorium took effect, in September, its expiration date was set for the end of the year. Then, as cases of COVID kept rising, it was extended into January, and then to the end of March. These extensions were the only things keeping Grimes and her family in their apartment. In the winter, she stopped getting work from the temp agency and began drawing unemployment. In March, Pitts lost his job, and the family fell even further behind on rent. They were barely keeping their utilities turned on. Their car broke down, and they used stimulus money to buy another one, but it was not in good shape—Grimes couldn’t trust it to get her to Nashville or La Vergne, both an hour’s drive away and the only places where she could find work. “I feel like, honestly, it’s all just going downhill,” she told me at the time. “My daughter needs clothes, because she’s growing so fast. . . . I mean, I have hope. I’m trying. I don’t know. It’s really hard to stay positive when everything just kind of shits on you.”
Shortly after Pitts lost his job, he and Grimes got another eviction notice for nonpayment from Farrar. She filled out the paperwork again, and went back to court. This time, instead of being thrown out, it was simply postponed to April, one week after the C.D.C. moratorium was set to expire. Grimes had gone to court without Blackwelder. “The judge dismisses cases where you have a lawyer, but if you don’t then he just extends it and extends it and extends it—like us, this time,” she said. Blackwelder told me that Grimes’s first case was dismissed because her landlord had violated the notification requirement; otherwise, the standard protocol in Bedford County, in her experience, was simply to delay the hearing. In the meantime, around the country, landlords began winning their cases challenging the moratorium. In West Tennessee, in March, a federal district judge, Mark Norris, struck it down, ruling that the C.D.C. had overstepped its authority. A hundred miles east, Grimes’s eviction case was kept open, and she knew she couldn’t rely on the moratorium to protect her much longer.