It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Thursday, and courtroom six in the Hamilton County Courthouse is empty. At 9 a.m., the detainer docket will begin, and General Sessions Judge Gary Starnes will preside over an apprehensive gathering of tenants, landlords and attorneys as they face off in battles to either retain or regain possession of a property, but for now, the room stands quiet in the calm before the coming storm.
Another tempest is gathering outside the courthouse and across Hamilton County as many households struggle in the devastating wake of COVID-19.
Having lost their paycheck when their employer shut down, the arrival of the first of each month forces them to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.
Normally, this would result in eviction. A lease is a contract, and when a tenant breaks that binding agreement, the justice system provides landlords with a means to pursue remedy.
But these are not normal times, so when the courts closed earlier this year, landlords were unable to seek to regain possession of their properties when tenants fell behind on rent. Then a 120-day moratorium on federal evictions kept people who were participating in federal housing assistance programs or living in a property with a federally backed mortgage in their homes.
That moratorium ended July 24. Courts re-opened, allowing landlords to issue notice for tenants to vacate their properties.
Although a wave of expulsions threatened to follow, a new moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped evictions until Dec. 31.
The moratorium does not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, meaning a new wave of evictions is building and could sweep through Hamilton County at the start of the new year. Perhaps better thought of as a tsunami, it could wash the 18,000 Hamilton County residents the U.S. Census bureau says are in danger of being evicted out of their homes.
Nathina Camp says she and her husband are among those who could lose their residence when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium is lifted. Unemployed and unable to pay rent on the house in which they and their children (both of whom are younger than 10) have lived for eight years, they arrive in courtroom six first and claim seats along the wall.
Their landlord and his attorney arrive a few minutes later and settle in across the room. More individuals follow, and soon, every seat (there are around two dozen, spaced about 6 feet apart) is occupied and people begin lining the walls.
Although the room is still quiet, it seems to have expanded, as if it has inhaled all anger, desperation and humiliation within its walls and is holding its breath.
Attorney Emily O’Donnell arrives before Starnes takes the bench. A divorce attorney with a private practice based in Chattanooga, she’s there to offer hope to tenants.
This hope comes in the form of an eviction prevention program involving local partners and funding as well as CARES Act money. O’Donnell spearheaded the creation of the program when courts closed and she saw a pent-up eviction crisis hitting the county when they re-opened.
“It was obvious we were going to have a problem,” she says. “So, I talked with Maeghan Jones at The Community Fund and other concerned citizens. We identified the right community partners to pilot a program that pairs rental assistance with legal representation in eviction cases.”
Before O’Donnell began representing future ex-spouses, she was with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, where she worked under an Obama-era homelessness prevention and rehousing grant administered through the City of Chattanooga. For three years, she focused on eviction defense, sued landlords for Fair Housing violations and represented housing authority tenants in grievance procedures.
This job provided O’Donnell with an education in tenants rights and a passion for preventing homelessness that persists to this day.
“An eviction can take a family from barely making it to not making it at all,” she points out. “You have to move out of your school zone, you lose ties with your community – it’s devastating. I’ve talked with people who are scared they won’t be able to be with their kids if they lose their home.”
The city of Chattanooga and a number of other organizations are providing rent relief programs to people impacted by COVID-19, but strict guidelines and documentation requirements is making the money difficult for some tenants to access, O’Donnell claims.
“The city of Chattanooga has funds to distribute; however, you have to live in the city and you need a documented loss of income due to COVID. But some people have a loss of income that’s unrelated to COVID or that’s tangentially related to COVID.
“I’ve had three clients who lost their job because they had to go on unpaid maternity leave and couldn’t return to work because of COVID. There’s no piece of paper you can submit to the city to prove that.”
To hold the horrors of eviction at bay, O’Donnell convinced Legal Aid and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, a nonprofit housing organization, to join her in launching the eviction prevention program.
O’Donnell says her model connects existing services to help distressed tenants. Cases begin at CNE, which has $1 million of CARES Act money for providing rent relief. If a case reaches eviction court, Legal Aid defends the tenants.
Meanwhile, $80,000 in flex funding from The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga allows the program to pay for costs the City of Chattanooga and other programs don’t cover.
“City money can pay up to three months of rent, but some people were still being evicted because they hadn’t paid their court costs and attorneys fees,” O’Donnell says. “The beautiful part of our program is we can take care of those things.”
O’Donnell also reached out to Southern Adventist University, which is providing case management through its social work students. These volunteers connect tenants to local services and provide guidance that steers clients through their personal journey, whether it’s suggesting they complete an application for an apartment or reminding them to find their child’s birth certificate so they can apply for housing.
“Chronic poverty impedes executive function, especially during a time like this,” O’Donnell explains. “You’re in a global pandemic, and you lost your job, and you’re behind on rent, and you have an eviction case and you’re pregnant. These clients have so many things happening at once, they need help getting their affairs in order.”
O’Donnell serves as the final piece of the puzzle. Although her divorce practice keeps her busy, she devotes Thursdays to eviction court, where she tells tenants about the CNE program and provides spur-of-the-moment legal representation when asked.
O’Donnell comes armed with a briefcase packed with the document tenants must sign and submit to their landlords in order to quality for the CDC moratorium. As the docket is called, she takes a mental inventory of the tenants involved and then makes herself available to them outside the courtroom as the judge hears cases.
The two-page declaration, which the CDC cumbersomely titled “Declaration Under Penalty of Perjury for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Temporary Halt in Evictions for Prevent Further Spread of COVID-19,” can immediately stop an impending eviction until the end of the moratorium, but it’s also peppered with clear warnings about the consequences for lying.
Boiled to its essence, the document allows a tenant to declare their inability to pay rent and the dire circumstances that will result if they are evicted from their home. While tenants are often anxious to sign the document, O’Donnell says, she takes the time to explain its implications.
As Starnes is hearing the first case, O’Donnell speaks with a young couple facing eviction. After she tells them about the declaration, she hands them a card with CNE’s contact information, allowing them to begin the process that could temporarily keep them in their home.
If the couple qualifies for the program, an attorney from Legal Aid will represent them during their court hearing. O’Donnell says legal representation is vital in eviction court, where a skillfully represented landlord can easily bulldoze a Pro Se client out of their home.
“A landlord who’s represented by an attorney is going to have a ridiculous advantage against an unrepresented tenant,” O’Donnell acknowledges. “So, my thesis for this project was that highly coordinated services, including legal representation, rental assistance and social work, can yield better outcomes than piecemeal service provision.”
O’Donnell says a tenant’s attorney can raise issues that can allow them to maintain possession of the property in question and can sometimes negotiate a settlement that’s less than what the defendant owes.
“There have been past relief efforts where the rent was paid on behalf of the tenant and the landlord moved to evict anyway,” O’Donnell huffs. “By having a lawyer properly dismiss the case, we can reduce the abuse.”
In one case O’Donnell defended, the opposing attorney attempted to cross-examine her client on the veracity of what they claimed when they signed the CDC declaration. Believing the document safeguards tenants from cross-examination, she objected.
“The declaration is clear: When a tenant submits it to their landlord, that’s the end. It doesn’t say the moratorium applies if the declaration is true, it says they submit the declaration under penalty of perjury, so even if they lied, you would have to stop their eviction but you could prosecute them for perjury.”
Jones, who’s president of The Community Fund, met O’Donnell when they worked together at Legal Aid. She says O’Donnell’s shrewd legal mind makes her a perfect advocate for tenants.
“She’s a brilliant attorney with a unique understanding of housing law and a deep-seated belief that everyone should be entitled to equal justice under the law,” Jones says.
“After years of representing clients at Legal Aid, Emily understands the devastating impact that evictions have on family stability. I knew she would be a tenacious advocate for families facing eviction and would treat her clients as well as her opponents with respect and dignity.”
“The reason this program has been successful is because we have a team of people dedicated to getting around the barriers to helping tenants,” O’Donnell counters.
Although the eviction prevention program does involve a group of organizations and individuals working in tandem, as Camp steps into the hallway, she encounters only O’Donnell, who listens intently as she pours out her story in a flurry of anguished words and tears.
After Camp has finished, O’Donnell offers to take her case, which she says hinges on convincing Starnes that Camp and her husband have a month-to-month lease and therefore rightful possession of the house. O’Donnell says she doubts they’ll win, but she’ll make sure her client has her moment in court.
“I don’t think we’re going to win, but I’ll fight like hell for you,” she says.
Like many of the tenants who find themselves in eviction court on a Thursday morning, Camp and her family appear to exist at the low end of the economic spectrum, where the economic crisis and the health care issues that have bubbled out of the pandemic have hit the hardest.
While the work O’Donnell and the others are doing on individual cases is keeping families in their homes for the time being, she points out that the moratorium is still scheduled to end Dec. 31, putting even people who have received rent relief through CNE, or the one of the other local organizations with CARES funds to distribute, back in jeopardy.
“Best-case scenario, the money flows and people get back on track. Then they return to work and recover financially,” O’Donnell offers. “But if landlords move in January to expel tenants who still have not paid their rent and a bunch of people are evicted at once, we’re going to experience a new public health crisis.”
O’Donnell says a separate threat looms for landlords, some of whom will likely be unable to pay the mortgages on their properties due to the lack of rental income and will face foreclosure.
“That would create an opportunity for out-of-town landlords to snap up cheap Chattanooga property,” she predicts.
O’Donnell says policy change is needed for the city and county to avoid a catastrophic outcome beyond the end of the CDC moratorium. To that end, she’s working with CNE to coordinate and evaluate the eviction prevention program’s research.
“We’re collecting data on our clients to learn who this crisis is impacting and comparing how well they do versus unrepresented tenants,” O’Donnell explains. “We’ve seen that it’s disproportionately single black women, people with young children and elderly people on fixed incomes.”
With this information in hand, O’Donnell and her team plan to make policy recommendations at the city and state level that shore up housing stability, as well as recruit advocacy groups to help them push the policies through the necessary channels.
One of the items on which they will focus is wages, which O’Donnell says have dropped behind rent costs nationally in the last decade and have dropped dramatically for the country’s lowest earners.
“The income of Hamilton County’s highest earners is down less than 3%, but those who earn $27,000 a year or less have seen their incomes drop by more than 20%.”
Not only that, the research O’Donnell and CNE has conducted has revealed that many of the clients were paying more than the recommended amount of their income on rent.
“So, they were unaffordably housed before the pandemic; one lost paycheck – one anything – could have set them back,” O’Donnell says.
Having nearly depleted the original flex fund from the Community Foundation, O’Donnell is also stumping for additional money that can help cover court costs, attorney fees and other issues that arise in an eviction case. She says her hope is to secure enough money to last through the end of 2021.
For the moment, though, O’Donnell is focused on keeping Camp and her family housed, so she takes her place beside her client and listens as the landlord’s attorney makes his case. Then she presents her rebuttal.
“This is a nonpayment issue disguised as a nonrenewal of a lease,” she begins. “Either way, their landlord accepted rent after he gave my clients notice of termination of the lease, so they have entered into a new month-to-month tenancy that must be properly ended before they can have a hearing.”
“Both of them have signed the CDC affidavit, and both of those have been filed?” Starnes asks.
“Yes,” O’Donnell replies. “They were given to their landlord prior to this date.”
“Then that stops the case,” Starnes says, less than one minute into the hearing. “I can’t proceed with it until after Dec. 31.”
Visibly irritated, the landlord’s attorney continues to plead his client’s case, but to no avail. Less than one hour after meeting Camp for the first time and hearing her story, O’Donnell has performed a miracle, her client says through fresh tears.
Emotions are still running hot when the two parties meet in the hallway. O’Donnell stands between them, facing the landlord and his lawyer as she attempts to explain the eviction prevention program to them.
When Camp speaks over O’Donnell’s shoulder, their heated discussion becomes a full-blown argument, with both parties raising their voices.
At this point, O’Donnell faces her client and tells them to calm down. “You need to go home before you’re arrested,” she tells Camp.
“I’m sorry,” Camp says. “This just hurts.”
“I know,” O’Donnell returns. “But you won.”
Clearly, evictions can be messy. But instead of losing her residence, Camp leaves the courthouse with CNE’s contact information and a possibly a few more months in the only house her 7-year-old son has known. If she and her husband qualify for relief, they will also have a little more time to find work without having to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.
As O’Donnell has learned since piloting the eviction prevention program, even finding work might not be enough to make them stable. For that to happen, broader change needs to occur, she says.
“In our mind, there’s an eviction crisis because of COVID, but in reality, there was an eviction crisis before COVID, and COVID brought it to light,” she says. “We need to work hard to change things for people who are insecurely housed. They need to be able to stay in their homes.”
If you are behind on rent, call CNE at 423 756-6201, follow the prompts for legal or rental assistance and leave a message.