COVID-19 has sent Middle Tennesseans into a tailspin. It is becoming evident that the long-term effects will be serious, and in some respects, permanent.
Many of us are facing health and economic hardships. Many newly poor residents are navigating benefits and charitable systems for the first time. As new and unanticipated civil legal challenges begin to arise, so will the need for continuing unemployment benefits, safeguards against being evicted or foreclosed upon, domestic abuse protections, shelter from debt collectors – especially for those already subjected to garnishment of federal relief checks – and much more.
As we navigate the multiplying needs of our neighbors, it will be important for our government and community to leverage every possible resource to meet these needs. This includes civil legal aid as an essential part of our state’s frontline response.
At Legal Aid Society, Tennessee’s largest nonprofit law firm, our lawyers and volunteers have adapted to the changing times, as have our colleagues at other legal aid offices across the state. Free legal clinics, legal consultations and court hearings are held over the phone and virtually. We’ve stepped up our online and social media presence, and we’re making more distilled legal information available online to benefit the average reader. But much more support will be required. According to American Bar Association president Judy Perry Martinez, “a tidal wave of legal needs is coming, and we need to do everything we can to respond.”
As the courts begin to reopen, civil legal groups will offer assistance to our most vulnerable neighbors to navigate the red tape and bureaucracy of accessing needed services and benefits. Whether it’s negotiating with a landlord to maintain housing, assisting a domestic violence victim who was not safer at home or advocating to the IRS on behalf of a senior who did not receive a stimulus check because of a mix-up, civil legal groups will be there to help navigate these uncertain waters.
According to research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, in many housing courts around the country, 90% of landlords have attorneys, and 90% of tenants do not. In addition, tenants with legal counsel are much less likely to be evicted than their unrepresented counterparts, regardless of the merits of their case. Legal services for low-income families in housing court could help prevent the fallout from eviction, decrease homelessness and help curb any potential discrimination in the eviction decision.
Here’s a typical story of how we worked with a client whose circumstances were severely impacted by COVID-19. We were contacted by an elderly, disabled woman who lived alone in Middle Tennessee. Due to an issue with her Social Security Disability Insurance back pay, she was unable to pay one month's rent, which caused her landlord to send her a notice of eviction.
Our client tried to pay using emergency financial assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, but her apartment complex refused to accept it and would not work with her to fix the problem.
Legal Aid Society was able to confirm that our client’s apartment complex was a recipient of low-income housing tax credits. As a LIHTC property, the complex was governed by the CARES Act, meaning that they didn’t have the legal right to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent during the month in question.
We wrote a letter to the complex explaining the protections of the CARES Act and demanding that the complex rescind the termination notice. We also notified the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which oversees the LIHTC providers to ensure compliance, about the complex's illegal actions. Within hours of our letter faxed to the apartment complex, the complex rescinded the notice of termination and issued an apology for the "mix-up."
Our client was allowed to stay in the property and pay back her unpaid rent. More broadly, our decision to involve THDA had far-reaching benefits for tenants of more than 14,000 other properties managed by this complex’s management company.
The needs of our neighbors will not end Dec. 31 when most CARES Act funding is slated to end. The snowball effect of economic hardships encountered during the pandemic will be long term, and Legal Aid Society is here to help restore our economy and the lives of so many. Increased support will ensure that civil legal groups can effectively assist low-income Middle Tennesseans through this period of recession and the years of recovery to come.
DarKenya W. Waller is executive director of the Legal Aid Society.