MEMPHIS — She’d finally caught up on her rent, so Jennifer Hurt showed up to court expecting the eviction case against her to be dropped. Instead, she learned that her landlady wanted her out anyway.
The two hadn’t spoken in months, even though their front doors are feet apart. Now they stood on opposite ends of a Memphis courtroom as the lawyer told the judge that the landlady wanted possession of the home on Quito Road, a small brick house that had once belonged to her parents.
Most renters in Shelby County — with one of the highest poverty rates in Tennessee — have been protected for months from eviction after courts were shut down twice during the coronavirus pandemic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent because of the crisis. But that changed in the Western District of Tennessee in March, when a federal judge struck down the moratorium, paving the way for evictions to resume in full force in that region.
A vast judicial machine that evicted tenants at more than double the national average in the years before the pandemic is revving up after months of dormancy. Judges fly through a case a minute as they work their way through an estimated 20,000-case backlog while lawyers from Memphis Area Legal Services try to broker deals between troubled tenants and fed-up landlords.
The chaos is a preview of what will happen nationwide this summer after the CDC moratorium expires at the end of July. Experts are bracing for a pent-up wave of evictions at a time when 10 million Americans are still behind on their payments, a historic high, according to a recent analysis of census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Does she have the right to evict me even though I’ve been paying on time and haven’t done anything wrong?” Hurt asked the judge, Betty Thomas Moore. “Can she come after me for payment for the last two months on the lease even though she’s evicting me?”
“Yes, she can,” Moore said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, I really do.”
“Ma’am, I’m sure it will,” Hurt said.
Moore, seeing Hurt’s distress, ruled that Hurt could take 30 days to vacate the property, rather than the usual 10. But there was nothing else she could do. Hurt had paid late, a violation of the terms of her lease. She had to move out by May 30, or she would be evicted.
Hurt was still crying when she left the courtroom, pacing the dimly lit hall where yellow police tape was looped over wooden benches, a social distancing protocol.
For months, Hurt had kept the affidavit for the CDC moratorium in her phone in case things went south with her landlady. She never had used it because she thought they were working things out. Now, there was no protection standing between her and a knock on the door.
Tenants showing up for eviction hearings in recent weeks on the ground floor of the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis said they fell behind on rent because their work hours were cut, they couldn’t find babysitters for their kids doing remote learning or they lost high-paying white-collar jobs and were now working for lower wages.
There was the petite nail technician who was laid off and couldn’t handle lugging boxes at UPS. The public relations executive whose business fell apart with no events to publicize. A housekeeper harboring thoughts of suicide. A caregiver who hid the eviction notices from her sons under her pillow. It is one expression of the lasting wounds of the coronavirus pandemic that persist in lower income communities even as much of the country is well on the road to recovery.
For much of the pandemic, many of these cases were delayed by the federal moratoriums as well as a huge backlog of cases because of court shutdowns. The CDC moratorium kept eviction filings in Shelby County to about half of what they were before the pandemic, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
Now, more and more people are being told they need to leave their homes, even though many have not recovered from the long-term financial effects of the pandemic.
Judge Phyllis B. Gardner, the administrative judge of the Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court, said they are merely doing now what the rest of the country will be doing in the coming months, which is facing reality. “It’s a national crisis for everybody,” Gardner said. “We’re trying to emerge from it, but it is not that easy.”
The cost of evictions is high. Those unfortunate enough to get a judgment will have trouble finding housing for years, experts say. Studies show that evictions can prolong homelessness, damage mental health, hamper tenants’ ability to apply for other kinds of housing assistance and have a long-term effect on their credit ratings.
But landlords are struggling, too, and there’s growing resentment about tenants who receive coronavirus-related stimulus checks and unemployment benefits and still don’t pay. Officials are scrambling to disburse more than $28 million in federal rental assistance, brokering deals for only $10 million so far, but some landlords just want to move on.
Hurt’s landlady, Debbie Brown, 62, is a retired court clerk who relies on the income from her one property to supplement her Social Security. When Hurt and her husband fell behind on their rent, Brown had to take out a $5,000 loan to cover the insurance and utilities, which were bundled into their $1,300 monthly payment.
“When that happened, she was over for me,” Brown said. “At that point, I didn’t trust them and I did not have faith in her to keep it up. I can’t talk with her. I went back on Prozac, as a matter of fact.”
Brown served Hurt a notice of eviction for nonpayment of rent when the couple first got behind in October, but a hearing was delayed until April 30. When Hurt hadn’t moved out by May 30, Brown’s lawyer turned to Charlie Fineberg, a well-known local process server, to evict the family.
Fineberg, 75, a former rodeo steer wrestler who has been handling evictions since 1983, said business is picking up after coming to a “crashing halt” last year. He had to dip into his savings last year to get by, although he did receive a forgivable paycheck protection loan early on.
These days when he shows up at a house, the tenants still “scream covid” and say they can’t be put out because of the CDC order, he said. He has to break the news that it no longer applies locally.
The tide of evictions has only begun, he said.
“It’s gonna get worse, more so than you ever thought about,” he said.
Fineberg pulled his blue GMC Sierra truck onto the gravel drive at Hurt’s residence shortly before 2 p.m. on June 11, 12 days after the May 30 deadline the judge had given her to move out of the house. It was a hot day with the kind of heavy air that precedes a summer downpour. He had a 9mm Glock semiautomatic handgun strapped around his waist, a taser and pepper spray in his truck’s console, and a gold badge on his belt that he made himself.
With 38 years in the business, Fineberg has seen how things can go wrong fast. In early June, a man barricaded himself in his bedroom and shot himself in the head as Fineberg entered the home.
By the time Fineberg arrived at Quito Road, Brown was waiting. The two walked up to the front door and found it unlocked. In short order, three burly men began carrying out the household contents and setting them down in the clover-filled yard. Matching flower trellis paintings came first, then bags of bedding, then a box of kitchen utensils.
Hurt and her husband were at work, but their older daughter, Jessica, a high school senior a week from graduation, was home. As the men made their way through the house, she awoke to people she didn’t know in her bedroom, telling her to get up and get dressed.
Jessica quickly came out onto the front steps to call her mother, begging her to hurry home. “You’ve got people putting our s--- at the end of the road,” she said into the phone. She hung up and said, “You better be prepared for my momma to raise hell when she gets here.”
Brown wagged her finger at the girl and started to speak, but Fineberg silenced her with a slice of his arm and a barked “No!”
“Debbie, you don’t need to tell her anything, I’ll do the telling,” he said.
When Hurt arrived, she sagged.
“I have a court order here to evict you from the premises,” Fineberg said from the stoop. He showed her the paper and said she needed to start gathering up her belongings. “Do you understand?” he asked.
“I understand,” Hurt said, her voice barely audible. She had known the deadline to move out was fast approaching, but had been unable to find any decent place to rent. She hoped Brown would give them the weekend to move, at least.
She went into the house and came out empty-handed except for a tiny blue-and-white flowered jewelry dish that had belonged to her grandmother Hazel. “Sentimental value,” she said and put it in her car.
Later, Hurt’s husband, Jeff Cartwright, pulled up, still in his paint-splattered work clothes, a trailer hitched to his truck.
Hurt, 51, a caregiver, and Cartwright, 55, had been struggling even before the pandemic, they said. The family had to move out of a previous home when the owner decided he wanted to sell. They spent the first few months of the pandemic living in a hotel, and then at a relative’s home.
After four months without a permanent address, they were glad to find Brown’s house in the town of Millington, which sits across from a cornfield and has a red rosebush along the drive. It was a stretch from their previous rent of $800.
“It was more than we were used to paying, but when we told [Brown], she said don’t worry about it, I will work with you,” Cartwright said. “Three days late and she’s sticking a note under the door.”
Aside from the financial strain of their period of homelessness, Hurt lost work during the shutdown and in September when Jessica was hospitalized for a month with a stomach ailment. They got caught up after Hurt received $1,500 in pandemic rental assistance in December. But by then, the two sides had stopped communicating.
“She did try, I’ll give her that,” Brown said of Hurt. “But when I had to take out that $5,000 loan, I was done.”
Inside, the window air conditioner chugged as the house grew hotter. Dog feces from one of the family’s three dogs was smeared over the purple shag carpet in the living room, pungent in the air. A mouse zipped by.
Jessica sat alone in the front room on a piano bench, leaning against the wall. Her younger sister, Jamie, 16, was at a babysitting job. The oldest dog, Bella, was curled up a corner, looking at her with anxious eyes.
In the last hour, the movers had stripped Jessica’s room of its bedding, the painting of a waterfall her friend made and a poster that said “Cherish Every Memory, Live Every Moment, Embrace Every Possibility.”
The list of her things she now couldn’t find seemed to be getting longer by the minute — her anxiety medication, her glasses, her contact lenses and the case for the loaner laptop from her high school, where she was an honors student.
Brown wandered through, checking out needed repairs, and took in the feces-soiled carpet.
“My mother would die,” Brown said, loud enough for Jessica to hear. “She would just die.”
Since April, Jessica had suspected that something bad was going to happen. She knew that her parents had an eviction judgment against them on April 30 and that they had been given 30 days to vacate. She mentally tracked the days and knew they were running out of time.
“I was thinking about it all the time. Mostly at night. I’m a night owl. I like to stay up late and sleep in,” she said. “I would just think: What if we’re not getting our stuff out fast enough?”
Her mom came over and tried to comfort her, hugging her around the shoulders.
“It’s going to be okay,” Hurt said. “It’s going to be okay.”
A flicker of a smile moved across Jessica’s face, but she did not return her mother’s hug.
“I got to where I couldn’t do it anymore,” Brown was saying from a perch at the back of the house, where she was sitting on a wrought-iron chair in the shade, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Dr Pepper. “I told them, ‘Y’all got to take trips, ya’ll had a good Christmas.’ They do everything they want to do. Go to pool tournaments. All of them went to Dauphin Island at Easter time.” The family did take a three-day trip to Pascagoula Miss., they said, but after they had caught up on their rent.
Fineberg emerged from the house and Brown asked him how it was going.
“Only the big pieces left,” he said.
He leaned up against a wall and stood beside her, wiping sweat from his forehead and lighting up a Pall Mall Blue 100. Evening was approaching, and a bird — Fineberg guessed it was a mockingbird — started to sing loudly in the trees above them.
The two agreed that many tenants had taken advantage of their landlords during the pandemic by hiding behind the moratorium’s protection as they received federal unemployment benefits — set to end in Tennessee on July 3 — and the $1,400 stimulus payments that many Americans began getting in April.
“You’ve got TVs flying out of Walmart and every other place around here,” Fineberg said. “You know full well they didn’t have the money before and now they got it.”
“When I was on unemployment, it was only $200 a week,” Brown said. “Now they don’t have the incentive to go back to work.”
“All these giveaways started under Mr. Johnson and Ladybird and have continued ever since. Democrat, Republican, it don’t matter, they’re all thieves,” Fineberg said.
“Well, it’s true that some people need help,” Brown said. She knows about want, she told him. She was adopted at age 10, and so she knows both sides – what it’s like to have somebody and what it’s like to have nobody.
“Yes, they do,” Fineberg said.
“But not all,” Brown said.
Her brother Richard, one of the movers, walked by carrying a brocade footstool.
“That’s mine,” Brown said.
He set it down, and she put her feet on it.
By 5 p.m., the house was nearly empty. Hurt had been going back and forth from the kitchen to the car — “like a robot” — packing coolers, trying to save family-size packs of chicken and pork chops from the freezer. Discarded jars of pickles and store-brand vanilla ice cream were left in a pile on the kitchen floor. She was worried about what would happen if the TVs were put outside and it started to rain.
Hurt stood in what had been her family room next to two upturned burgundy floral sofas and started to cry again.
“In that courtroom, I saw so many people in that courthouse getting rightfully evicted because they owned $6,000, $7,000 and she can evict me when I’m current? It just blows my mind how it can happen,” she said.
But this eviction — the first — will further mar a credit record that already shows small claims judgments that range from $230 to $6,804. And the couple will probably have trouble finding other housing in a market where decent affordable places are increasingly harder to come by.
For now, they will stay with Cartwright’s nephew — four people and three dogs in one large room — joining a family of six in a house with one bathroom. They are thinking of getting a portable toilet.
Cartwright returned from taking a load to storage with bad news: The office was closed and they couldn’t get another unit until the morning. Their things would have to sit outside overnight.
Jessica was in the pile of belongings, still searching for her things. She finally spotted a trash bag and pulled it up out of the heap.
“I found my clothes!” she said and hugged it tight.
Outside, the sky darkened over the cornfield. Somebody wondered whether the little refrigerator — now out in the yard — had any cold beer left in it. Hurt came out carrying one last load — a cake plate, a pair of sandals, a leather jacket. Cartwright kept his eye on the weather radar on his phone. It looked like a deluge was headed their way.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.