Eviction Right to Counsel pilot program saves Nashville residents $3.4M in first year

Cancer patients on the verge of homelessness call the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee often. They’re behind on rent and facing eviction because they lost their job when working through chemotherapy and radiation treatments became too much to bear. “That exact call, I get at least once a month,” said Elizabeth Leiserson, Legal Aid Society project director for Davidson County’s Eviction Right to Counsel pilot program. Another common call comes from tenants who lost their jobs due to a difficult pregnancy.

“Then the eviction notice comes in while or immediately after they’re giving birth,” Leiserson said.

Davidson County is on track to surpass 13,000 eviction filings in 2023. Landlords almost always have legal representation in eviction cases, according to a third-party review of Metro eviction data. Typically, less than 1% of tenants have an attorney by their side in the courtroom.

People crowd the hallways outside courtrooms where eviction proceedings are happening in the Justice A.A. Birch Building in Nashville, TN. on Tuesday Aug.3,2021. Josie Norris/ the Tennesseean.

But the pilot program Leiserson leads alongside the Nashville Hispanic Bar Association and other community partners is working to change that. In its first year, the program’s free education and legal aid for low-income renters facing eviction has saved Metro residents an estimated $3.4 million, according to an evaluation by consulting firm Stout.

As of June 30, the Legal Aid Society and the Nashville Hispanic Bar Association assisted 1,010 clients — a significant number but just 7% of tenants believed to be eligible for the program’s assistance. Three days a week, the Eviction Right to Counsel program also operates a table in the courthouse, offering basic information about tenants’ rights and options to an estimated 200 tenants each week.

“We’ve already surpassed Metro Council’s original $3 million investment in this program in terms of savings of residents, and in the next year, we’re on track to more than double it,” Legal Aid Society Executive Director DarKenya W. Waller said in a December news release.

The pilot’s funding comes from one-time American Rescue Plan Act dollars awarded in 2022, which will run out in June 2024. Julie Yriart, the program’s legal director in conjunction with the Nashville Hispanic Bar Association and Conexion Americas, said she’s hopeful Metro will continue to fund and possibly expand the program to impact more residents.

Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell, along with several other then-mayoral candidates, pledged to continue funding for the initiative during the 2023 campaign. On Dec. 22, O’Connell confirmed he is looking to preserve the program in the coming year’s budget. “We’re also aware state revenue forecasts are down and I don’t think this is going to be a year where we look to create a large number of new initiatives … but I would say that is one of the programs that we want to continue because it is such an important segment of our overall affordable housing conversation,” he said.

“The housing crisis in Nashville is too big a problem for any one strategy to solve,” Leiserson said. “The Eviction Right to Counsel program cannot solve it, but we are one piece of a good, comprehensive program, and among the various pieces, we are one of the cheapest.”

Who the program benefits

Low- and moderate-income renters at risk of eviction in Davidson County are eligible for free legal assistance through the program. About 85% of program clients identified as non-white, according to data collected by the Legal Aid Society and Hispanic Bar Association. Conexion Americas Co-Executive Director Martha Silva said immigrant communities are particularly impacted by unjust evictions.

The majority — 78% — are female, and 54% live in public or subsidized housing. Forty-seven percent reported having children in the household, and 28% said they have a disability. About half receive extended services.

Having eviction attorneys in the courthouse more often led to the identification of more than 400 evictions that had been filed over the last several years by individuals often not on record as the properties’ owners, according to Stout’s report. While cases that were filed incorrectly can be dismissed, Tennessee does not allow expungement, meaning evictions still show up on tenants’ court records and can be held against them, Leiserson said.

Yriart said Davidson County judges have been generally receptive to those concerns, and some have begun having clerks review eviction cases filed pro se — without legal counsel — to check for proper standing before cases proceed. Yriart would like to see the court require proof of standing when these cases are filed, in the form of a property record, deed or lease.

Counsel representation can help:

  • Reduce or eliminate judgement amounts, attorney’s fees, court costs and/or late fees
  • Expedite or secure emergency rental assistance funding
  • Avoid housing subsidy termination

Of the cases with financial impact, the average savings was around $10,900 for each client assisted, according to Stout’s report. Some cases don’t result in direct financial savings, but can still be “huge wins” for clients, Leiserson said. In cases such as those with cancer patients or new parents facing eviction, program staff can request accommodation from the court, including extra time to move out.

“That case may have zero financial outcome, but if it can … get them two weeks or a month so that this person with a brand new baby or this cancer survivor doesn’t actually have to be homeless, that can mean everything,” she said. Yriart and Leiserson said medical issues are often a factor in inability to pay rent, something Tennessee law allows no legal defense for.

“Because your healthcare is linked to your employment, is linked to your housing, if any one of those pieces fall out, all of it falls, and there’s not much of a social safety net to catch you,” Leiserson said. Yriart added that these issues impact the middle class as well as lower-income families. One woman she worked with drained her 401K when she became medically unable to work. When that was gone, the woman faced eviction with no where else to go. Many other clients don’t know how to navigate a fast and furious court system, or don’t know what rights or options they have in the process.

“To help people who are navigating that, just to give them a sense of relief, I think that is the best part of the job,” Yriart said. “Giving people hope.”

What comes next

Stout will produce additional reports focused on other services offered by partnering organizations, including free mediation services provided by the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center and outreach materials and events provided in multiple languages in partnership with Conexion Americas and the American Muslim Advisory Council. Future reports will also draw from interviews with landlords and their attorneys.

“Even if the plaintiff’s counsel, the landlords’ counsel, isn’t always fully appreciative of our court announcements about people’s rights, the refer people to us, and I think that speaks volumes,” Yriart said.


Davidson County residents seeking eviction help can contact the Legal Aid Society at 833-837-HOME (833-837-4663).

Published by the Tennessean on December 26, 2023.


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