Lawyers ready to help as eviction cases pile up after pandemic

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Lawyers don’t know exactly how eviction hearings will work with social distancing requirements, but there are some things they want tenants to know before they rush to hearings that begin next week.

Cindy Ettingoff, CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services, is used to hearing from people in desperate situations.

“We provide pro bono, free legal services to people in our community at 125% of the poverty level or below, Ettingoff said.

She said the biggest chunk of those calls these days are related to housing, specifically evictions, but this didn’t start with the pandemic. The cases had already been building, and when court reopens next week, they’ll have around 9,000 cases on the docket.

“On Monday, I suspect the cases will be pre-COVID cases,” Ettingoff said. “What will make all that crazy is we have new guidelines.”

She’s talking about health requirements and capacity limitations that only allow 10 people in the room at a time.

“I don’t know what you’re going to do with your children because the rules say you can’t bring your friend, driver, whatever,” Ettingoff said.

She also wants anyone attending a hearing to know their landlords probably can’t evict them if they couldn’t pay rent during the coronavirus shutdown.

Attorney Ben Sissman represents about 50 landlords in Memphis.

“In evictions, which is what I mostly do, the volume is way down because the CARES Act had a provision that people whose properties have federally subsidized mortgages, they’re not allowed to file,” Sissman said.

That includes any federal funding. If a landlord received a mortgage through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or FHA or HUD assistance, they can’t give eviction notices until July.

“Most larger landlords would’ve had financing somewhere,” Sissman said.

If you do get called into an eviction hearing, Ettingoff’s best advice is to ask for a continuance.

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