MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When a tenant almost got evicted in December due to the Memphis Housing Authority being behind on her rent payments, the woman’s landlord called the WREG Problem Solvers. The ensuing investigation revealed concerning problems at the agency, which services around 26,000 families.
Emma Caldwell, 68, has multiple sclerosis and requires help from an aide five days a week. She also can’t work.
The Memphis Housing Authority provides vouchers to pay the majority of her rent at her Whitehaven apartment.
She said she never had issues until a couple months ago, when her landlord got so frustrated, he called the WREG Problem Solvers.
“We tried to do everything. We tried to connect them to her to help,” said Adam Rudman, manager of Apartments Near Me.
Rent payment delays resolved, but Memphis Housing Authority issue could lead to mistaken evictions
According to Rudman, Housing Authority officials kept saying they didn’t have the right paperwork and stopped paying her rent. Rudman got worried he’d have to evict her.
“Three months without payment from them,” Rudman said.
Caldwell and her aid showed copies of the forms the Housing Authority needed.
“I did everything right, got all my papers filled out,” she said.
“The first time the fax was wrong and then she turned around and faxed it again,” her aide said.
To add to her frustration, Caldwell described a pattern of rudeness from the Housing Authority representative.
“She said, ‘Ms. Caldwell I’m telling you, don’t you call this number anymore!’ Everybody wants to feel like a human being. Everybody. I may not be able to do certain things. But I know how to treat people,” Caldwell said.
When WREG contacted the Memphis Housing Authority in December to get details on Caldwell’s case, they sent a statement, reading in part: “She never completed her annual recertification process which was due by October 1. Given the current pandemic conditions and her elderly status, we will go ahead and process her assistance.”
In an interview with the Problem Solvers, Marcia Lewis, CEO of the Memphis Housing Authority, took full responsibility for Caldwell’s case and explained what could’ve happened.
“We’re not going to people’s homes. We’re not sending inspectors in,” she said, though normally she would have sent somebody to take care of the paperwork confusion in person.
But the case also exposed major problems with her agency; she said they were unequipped to handle the pandemic in almost every facet of their operation.
“Not being able to hold briefing sessions in person, not able to go out and recruit landlords,” she said. “We had to order extra computers because people don’t have computers to work at home and monitor mailboxes. Half our staff works two days, the other half two days. We’re in process of purchasing cell phones.”
She said they’re also in the process of revamping their website so clients can submit forms electronically, launching video inspections and a new call center function on their phone lines.
$3.5 million of CARES Act funding will pay for the upgrades.
“We realize it’s been difficult for our clients because it’s been tough for us,” Lewis said. “People don’t know and shouldn’t have to reach out to me. They shouldn’t have to go up the chain.”
The Problem Solvers submitted an open record request to the agency to find out if anyone was evicted because of these problems. They said they found no cases.
Lewis said they caught any issues like Caldwell’s in time, before they escalated into any kind of rent-related eviction.