Check out this blog post from our Summer Policy Intern, PY Liu:
To halt the spread of COVID-19, the CDC issued a moratorium in September of 2020, preventing landlords from evicting their tenants so that they don’t enter congregated spaces such as homeless shelters dense with COVID transmission. But the imminent end of the CDC moratorium on July 31st means Nashvillians unable to make rental payments are on the edge of losing their homes while the lethal Delta variant of COVID looms over Tennessee. The morning of July 13th, eighteen days before the expiration of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) eviction moratorium, I walked through the entrance of the Justice A.A. Birch Courthouse in downtown Nashville with the rest of the Healthy and Free Tennessee staff. I expected to see tenants and landlords coming to court to resolve their conflicts through equitable negotiation, but what I found was that tenants were having a difficult time defending themselves and utilizing the very CDC order designed to protect them.
The judge called the names on the General Sessions Court Civil Docket and frequently issued a default judgment for the plaintiff/landlord when the defendant/tenant was absent, giving the plaintiffs an automatic win. Unfortunately, taking time off work to travel to the court isn’t a viable option for many tenants, who can hardly afford rent. Additionally, several defendants had no legal representation. One absent defendant was represented by her mother, a white, middle-aged woman holding her very young grandchild in her arms as she stood in front of the judge. When questioned about her daughter’s absence, the woman answered that she had gotten COVID, a claim the plaintiff’s lawyer dismissed. The judge made an off-handed comment that the defendant leaving her child with a non-guardian is negligent parenting. The plaintiff’s lawyer went on to eloquently present well-researched evidence to prove the defendant’s illegal occupation of the property. Possession of the property was swiftly granted to the plaintiff, and the woman was told to inform her daughter that they will have ten days to move out. As I watched the grandmother leaving with her wailing grandchild, I couldn’t help connecting this interaction to the data on housing and reproductive freedom. This infant is among the 18% of the low-income families with children with little confidence to pay rent or mortgage in the state of Tennessee. This number is even higher for families of color, with 43% of low-income Black Tennessean families with children struggling to make rental payments.
A quick scan of the courtroom revealed another problematic phenomenon: the room was filled with Black and Latinx folks with suited white lawyers scattered here and there, mostly representing white plaintiffs. Most sat still with quiet apprehension as the lawyers conversed with the judge. This disparity was a sobering reminder of racial inequality in Nashville, a city with a history of redlining and gentrification. 68% of white Nashville residents are homeowners, while 34% of black residents own their homes. The number is only a slightly higher 40% with Latinx residents. This homeownership discrepancy suggests that Black and brown folks are more likely to be renters than their white counterparts. The skewed racial demographic of the court attendees unmistakably showcased the disproportionate effect of gentrification and the housing crisis on Nashville’s BIPOC communities, whose struggles are disproportionately aggravated by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Since these ongoing issues require consistent public attention, I returned to the eviction court with the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment (PATHE) court watchers on the morning of July 26th, four days before the end of the CDC moratorium. We arrived early to hand out flyers about rental assistance to people entering the courthouse. When we spoke with people, we informed them about three critical barriers protecting them from eviction: first, file the CDC Eviction Protection Declaration form. When tenants qualify, the judges cannot evict the tenants for nonpayment. Second, apply for rental assistance provided by the Metropolitan Action Commission. And third, move their case to LEGACY court, a diversion court that halts the eviction until their assistance is processed and facilitates mediation and payment plans between landlords and tenants. I hoped that the three layers of protection should delay, if not prevent, the scheduled eviction, but my hopes were dashed as soon as I entered the courtroom.
One of the most unsettling cases involved a pregnant woman. We talked with her prior to her hearing, and with PATHE’s guidance, she immediately filed for CDC eviction protection and transferred her case to LEGACY court. To our dismay, these protective measures did not shelter her from an eviction. The soon-to-be mother stood in front of the judge with both hands supporting her belly, and told the judge that her baby, which will be her second child, is due tomorrow. She further explained that earlier this year, while pregnant she contracted COVID and spent time in the hospital and associated rehab. When questioned by the judge, the woman lowered her head and admitted to nonpayment. Disregarding her extenuating circumstances, the judge ruled in favor of the landlords, leaving her with two options: appeal for the decision within ten days, requiring her to put forth a considerable amount of money, or negotiate with the landlords. Though she informed him about filing for CDC eviction protection, the judge dismissed her claims by saying the moratorium will end soon. Stories like this woman’s are all too common. People who are pregnant should be able to focus on their health and wellness, not have to take traumatic trips to court and struggle to find housing while navigating the repercussions of a global pandemic. The compounded impact of reproductive injustice and housing instability punishes poor pregnant people at the intersection of class, gender, and race. Without a home, parents face daunting challenges raising children, including the risk of having their children taken away from them by Child Protective Services. In Tennessee, lack of shelter is classified as a form of physical neglect, which means the very mother we witnessed in court can potentially have her newborn removed from her if she becomes homeless after the eviction.
Nashville families and children deserve a roof over their heads, and they deserve the full protection of the laws afforded to them. When the CDC eviction moratorium expires tomorrow, how many more pregnant people and families will be left without shelter? Reproductive freedom advocates in Nashville and across the country need to get involved in the fight for housing stability. Check out the resources below for more information and to get involved in Nashville.
Join the fight today:
Join the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment (PATHE) for housing-related activities such as Eviction Outreach and Court Watching. Apply to be a PATHE volunteer here.