Between 210,000-300,000 families in Tennessee are currently in danger of eviction. Over 30% of Tennessee households are at risk, with the impact of the eviction crisis disproportionately falling on Black women (before and during this pandemic). Renters owe between $457 million and $599 million in unpaid rent to landlords across the state. In the meantime, the Tennessee government sits on over $700 million funds earmarked for poor families in need. To make matters worse, Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative Mike Carter have introduced a bill (SB205/HB200) that allows judges to consider housing instability in determining whether to terminate parental rights for poor parents struggling to make ends meet.
The Governor made his priorities clear in his State of the State: he wants to make it easier to terminate parental rights. In this case, it’s the rights of parents who are struggling as tens of millions of Americans are unable to make rental payments in the face of a national emergency. We know that the state does not care about low income people or people of color, but separating families because of a nationwide housing crisis that has been compounded by a global pandemic is just cruel.
Housing justice is a reproductive freedom issue. Not only does housing impact people’s financial ability to access abortion services, but when the state threatens to take away children because of housing insecurity, it’s a reproductive harm. We also know that Black and Brown parents are disproportionately more housing insecure as a result of generations of racist housing policies and structural racism. These communities are also disproportionately involved in child welfare calls and proceedings because of the increased surveillance they face and racist stereotypes of Black and Brown parenting. Increasing the factors courts can consider in termination of parental rights proceedings, especially factors considering housing, is an attack on families of color and their reproductive freedom.
Of course we want parents, guardians, children, and families to live and thrive in safe and stable housing, but the answer is not to separate families, effectively punishing mothers, parents, and guardians for poverty as we have seen the legislature do many times before. The government is failing its most vulnerable constituents and is trying to distract us from their incompetence by shifting the blame to poor families in ways that rely on racism, bias, and policing.
While the federal government has taken steps to combat the looming eviction crisis, including the Center for Disease Control’s most recent moratorium on evictions, and providing CARES Act rental assistance funding, these solutions have their limitations. The moratorium requires tenants to agree to pay back rent with interest and prove certain conditions that make them eligible. Even with the moratorium, landlords are still taking tenants to court or taking the law into their own hands, evicting families illegally. The moratorium is set to expire on March 31st, and an estimated 30-40 million renters are at risk of losing their homes at this time.
That’s why we are joining with organizers statewide to demand real solutions to the housing crisis. We join others demanding that the State release the TANF funds to the people who need it, strongly urge state and local officials and courts to put in place better and strong eviction moratoriums, and call on private landlords to suspend evictions. We are with #TN4SafeHomes because no Tennessean should fear losing their children or their lives because they cannot afford to pay rent in a global pandemic, or ever. Join our town hall on Monday February 22nd at 5pm CT live-streamed via our Facebook page and here to hear more from Tennessee renters and policy advisors.
The Tennessee House Children and Family Affairs Subcommittee is scheduled to hear SB205/HB200 on Tuesday afternoon, and we expect to hear the same tired arguments about protecting children. But what these arguments fail to realize is that protecting families by providing material support that was intended for them is, in fact, the best way to protect children and ensure that Tennesseeans do not have to live in fear of losing their homes and their children, especially during a national emergency.
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