Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2023

Legal counsel, social workers work to stabilize families


Eviction filings are rising throughout Hamilton County, intensifying the need for more support to keep vulnerable families in their homes, representatives from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga report.

Maeghan Jones, president and CEO of Community Foundation, recently spoke to the Chattanooga City Council’s Affordable Housing Committee about the Eviction Prevention Initiative, a program which provides access to legal counsel and social workers for local families facing eviction.

EPI was launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in response to the rising wave of evictions; ongoing investment by the City Council, other funding partners and the Community Foundation allows the organization to continue to operate.

Local attorney Emily O’Donnell, as well as host of partner organizations, including Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Habitat for Humanity and the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, support EPI. O’Donnell is the organization’s co-founder and strategic adviser.

“In 2021, the area median home sales price was $265,000 – more than double the 2010 price of $130,000,” Jones told council members. “Despite rising home prices, many working families have not seen an increase in wages.”

As a result of wage stagnation and the end of federal eviction moratoria and rent relief programs, Hamilton County’s eviction filings in 2022 increased by 34% over 2021. The Community Foundation anticipates that eviction filings will return to their pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year.

Sixty-five percent of EPI clients are severely burdened by housing costs, which means they spend more than 50% of their monthly income on expenses like rent and utilities.

While affordability is an issue throughout the greater Chattanooga region, the crisis of eviction is not felt equally in all parts of the community. Court data from 2016-2022 indicates more eviction cases are filed in neighborhoods composed of majority-Black census tracts, as well as tracts with higher rates of poverty.

Evidence suggests that eviction is not merely a symptom of poverty but a cause of it. People who experience eviction are at greater risk of homelessness, job loss and adverse health conditions.

Also, once an eviction judgment is on an individual’s record, they will experience greater difficulty securing safe and affordable housing.

Evictions also impact landlords, who lose rental income and will incur additional costs to relist the property. In addition, abandoned properties might become unattractive nuisances degrading property values and rents in neighborhoods where eviction proceedings are prevalent.

“This is a poverty crisis masquerading as a housing crisis,” says O’Donnell. “We have a moral and economic imperative to address both, but helping people obtain safe, secure housing is the foundation on which we have to build everything else.”

Still, EPI offers hope to those who are struggling and potentially facing eviction.

“Since inception, we’ve helped more than 400 households prevent eviction,” says O’Donnell. “In addition to preventing evictions, our lawyers and case workers have helped landlords secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent relief to help them mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and the current economic environment.”

Access to legal representation appears to be a significant determinant of success for tenants who are facing eviction, notes EPI in a news release. For example, from Oct. 21, 2021 through Sept. 22, EPI clients received a dismissal in 67% of the cases, as opposed to 27% for people who did not have access to an attorney.

EPI clients were also 50% less likely to receive a money judgment against them compared to tenants who were not represented. In addition, regardless of whether they were evicted, 42 households that received case management remained housed.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly cited EPI as a significant contributor to the city’s recent announcement that unsheltered homelessness had decreased 40% in the past year – a significant reversal from the 200% increase from the previous two years.

Quantifying EPI’s material benefit to taxpayers is the next major step for this work. With the support of the Maclellan Foundation, the Community Foundation has contracted with Stout Analytics and Southern Adventist University to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that will define the program’s impact with respect to the amount of public resources it saves.

The Community Foundation expects the initial findings from this analysis to be available in early 2024.

In the meantime, EPI’s work helping vulnerable families and landlords reach resolutions will continue, says Jones.

“While EPI started as a crisis response, its results show that it’s even more relevant today.”

Source: EPI