Cost of rent, Wild West style evictions

Thursday, September 3, 2020

There are approximately 5,370 Bedford County households who rent their housing. According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rent for a two bedroom house or apartment in Bedford County is $768 a month. Many of these are weekly rentals, with large non-refundable “move in” fees.

The total number of households in Bedford County is around 16,000. One third are renters.

Anyone connected with housing will tell you that you should spend no more than a third of your gross income (before taxes) on rent. If you do the math, it works out that for a tenant to reasonably afford a two bedroom apartment in Bedford County he or she should earn $14.77 an hour.

Lowe’s in Shelbyville starts their employees at $11 an hour. Wal-Mart in south Murfreesboro starts their employees at around the same rate. Both are too low — by $4.77 an hour — to pay the fair market rent. A worker earning minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) would have to have two full time jobs to afford the average rental. The average retail worker has to sacrifice on other necessities to afford the average rent in Shelbyville.

With Shelbyville and Bedford County fixed on recruiting new industry to the area, one of the things potential employers look for is available housing — where will prospective employees live? Housing is a quality of life issue. If housing is unaffordable, or of poor quality, prospective employers may be unwilling to set up shop here.

COVID crisis

Compounding the ongoing problem of affordable housing is the COVID-19 pandemic which hit Tennessee in early March. The effects of the statewide shutdown that resulted left many low and moderate income workers out of work. The unemployment rate in Bedford County at the end of May was over 13 percent — over 3,100 people unemployed. Most low to moderate income workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, and when they lost their jobs, many were unable to pay their rent. Following an eviction moratorium, in early June landlords pursued evictions on over a hundred tenants in Bedford County.

There were reports of some landlords using illegal tactics, bypassing eviction laws, to force tenants out quickly. The practice is called constructive eviction. Constructive eviction is when a “landlord does something or fails to do something that he or she has the legal duty to provide (e.g.. the landlord refuses to provide heat or water to the apartment), rendering the property uninhabitable.”

One Bedford County landlord, when faced with the financial challenges that arose when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived left an unsigned document titled “Important Health Notice” on tenants’ doors on April 17, twenty-three days after the first case of COVID was reported in Bedford County. “As you are aware, your lease clearly states that no electricity or water is included in your rent,” the health notice stated. “Nonetheless, we have been providing electricity and water to you at our expense. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we are no longer in a financial position to do this.”

The landlord’s health notice went on: “Because our failure to pay the utility company for the power and water you use (but do not pay for) could result in an interruption in your service that would be an inconvenience to you and your family, we are informing you now so that you have time to place the utilities into your own name … We will continue to pay for your electricity for a few more days to allow you the opportunity to take care of this…”

A survey

At the end of June, the National Housing Law Project, surveyed 100 attorneys who work in housing law in 38 states. The purpose of their survey was to “see how tenants were faring during the pandemic.” Tenants have not been faring well, when the going gets tough the poor get trampled.

The attorney’s top concerns were:

• illegal evictions and lockouts by landlords

• evictions via Zoom – remote hearings rife with due process problems

• ballooning number of cases that legal aid attorneys simply can’t handle

• health and safety of legal staff and clients

• need for rental assistance to prevent homelessness crisis

Ninety-one percent of the surveyed attorneys reported illegal evictions in their area; 53 percent saw tenants illegally locked out of their homes; and 18 percent saw tenants facing intimidation and other threats by their landlords. (It’s been reported that one Bedford County landlord, in year’s past, removed the front doors from rental properties to force out tenants who were behind on their rent.)

The report also claimed that “Nationally, only 10 % of tenants have legal representation, while 90 % of landlords do.”

A local tenant rights group, the Bedford County Listening Project, has been pushing local government — the City of Shelbyville and Bedford County — to get involved in housing issues but both government entities say they are unable or unwilling to do anything, claiming problems between landlords and tenants are civil issues, not under the purview of local government. One of the principal members of the Bedford County Listening Project has signed on to run for City Council.

• See Saturday’s T-G, online and print, for part three of this series: Nowhere to live: One woman’s battle with rats and bugs.