By Tom Bailey, Daily Memphian
The same MIFA-led “community conversation” that last year influenced a brick-and-mortar solution to homelessness will focus this year on the tide of Memphis evictions.
The second “Our City, Our Story” event will be noon on Wednesday, Oct. 7. The online-only event will feature a talk by, and a Q&A session with, Princeton University sociology professor Matthew Desmond.
Desmond’s 2016 book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, National Book Critics Circle Award, Carnegie Medal and PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction.
A former MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Desmond is also principal investigator for The Eviction Lab at Princeton. The 13-member team of researchers, students and website designers has created the first, nationwide database on evictions (evictionlab.org).
For “Eviction,” Desmond embedded himself for 18 months with families and landlords in impoverished neighborhoods of Milwaukee to put a human face on the issue.
The citation for his 2017 Pulitzer describes “Eviction” as “a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”
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MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association) encourages those interested in logging in to “Our City, Our Story” to first read the book, but doing so is not required.
A MIFA board member recommended the book for this year’s community conversation and everyone who read it was “blown away,” said Sally Jones Heinz, MIFA president and chief executive. The book has been embraced by local book clubs and religious congregations and promoted by Novel bookstore, she said.
Last year, MIFA’s “Our City, Our Story” focused on homelessness, and drew 500 people to a luncheon that included a panel discussion with local experts.
Since COVID-19 prevents an in-person event this year, MIFA is posting on mifa.org two-minute videos featuring five local experts in evictions: Dorcas Young Griffin, Shelby County’s director of Community Services; Jared Myers, executive director of The Heights Community Development Corp. (CDC); Roshun Austin, executive director of The Works CDC; Webb Brewer, an attorney with expertise on housing issues; and Paul Young, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development.
Young also will moderate the Q&A session with Desmond.
Evictions in Memphis
A root cause of evictions is the portion of income — often more than half — that rent takes from impoverished families, Desmond has said.
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His research found that each time a family is evicted, it typically moves to a home in poorer condition and in a less stable neighborhood.
In Memphis, 56% of single-family homes are rented, according to MIFA. And most of the people who are evicted are women, many with children.
In typical years, Shelby County courts average processing 2,500 eviction cases a month, Young Griffin said.
“If you live paycheck-to-paycheck it’s almost inevitable,” Jared Myers said of evictions. He works to strengthen the two-square-mile Highland Heights neighborhood where 60% of single-family houses are rental. On the west side of Highland Heights, 70%-80% of houses are rentals, he said.
Desmond’s book rings true for Myers.
“It’s not a matter of social or individual responsibility,” Myers said. “But it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen just because there’s not enough income coming into households and the cost of housing is too high. The cost of utilities is too high.”
Evictions make it harder to build up neighborhoods because neighbors keep changing.
“The heart of community development is being able to build relationships, and not being able to do that because there’s a constant transient population” is a challenge, Myers said.
Help is here
Since Sept. 10, MIFA has been administering some federal CARES Act funding to help local residents challenged to pay rent, mortgage and utilities because of COVID-19.
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As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, MIFA had received 850 applications. Of those, 300 sought help paying rent or mortgages and 550 sought help with utilities. Each eligible applicant can receive up to $800, Heinz said.
Because of the pandemic, the federal government has ordered a halt to evictions through Dec. 30 for individuals earning less than $99,000 a year and families making less than $198,000.
But Heinz said, “I hope that people will not wait until that is lifted to apply for assistance.”
An applicant only has to show a loss of income because of COVID-19. “You don’t have to have an eviction notice to get assistance,” she said.
But families who are able should continue paying their rent, urged Young Griffin, the Shelby County head of Community Services.
“Some people think ‘I don’t have to pay ever.’ That’s not true,” Young Griffin said. “Everything you owe is building up during this time. It’s going to be sitting there waiting for you in January … You need to continue to make every effort to pay and/or access support.”
Eviction cases in Shelby County are substantially down so far this year, but only because of the federal moratoriums due to COVID-19.
For example, over the four weeks from late August through mid-September, landlords filed 1,038 eviction cases in Shelby County courts, according to a weekly eviction report prepared by Innovate Memphis and Neighborhood Preservation Inc.
During the same four weeks last year, landlords filed to pursue 2,238 evictions.
Our City, Our Story, our results
The second-annual event may be billed as a “community conversation,” but MIFA’s first Our City, Our Story in 2019 resulted in more than just talk.
One of the panel participants on homelessness last year was Rev. Lisa Anderson, founder of Room in the Inn in Memphis. In its first 11 years, Room in the Inn has grown to 55 Memphis congregations which use their buildings to feed and house the homeless during colder seasons.
Now, Room in the Inn will soon announce a new project involving a dedicated building that will provide shelter for two types of needs.
The site will house up to 14 families waiting for more permanent housing through MIFA’s Rapid Rehousing program.
And the building will provide a place the homeless can recuperate after being released from a hospital.
The 2019 Our City, Our Story did not give birth to Room in the Inn’s new initiative, but Anderson credits the event for “clarifying” the project.
“As we thought about the next step in what we planned to do, it just kind of helped us see that direction,” she said.
Room in the Inn’s response to last year’s Our City, Our Story reflects the spirit of the event, said Heinz, MIFA’s leader.
“The idea: We really wanted to generate some community conversation around issues similar to when MIFA was founded in 1968 (after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis).
“To try to convene folks and get people having meaningful conversations that might lead to solutions or ideas or community action,” Heinz said.
“Attendees” may register for the event at https://community.mifa.org/ourcityourstory to receive a link for logging on; a donation of $25 is suggested.