NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A new program is aiming to level the playing field for people facing evictions in Nashville.

A recent study presented to Metro Council by the Vanderbilt University Action Research class found that between 2016 and 2021, 99.8% of Davidson County plaintiffs — landlords —  had an attorney, while less than 1% of defendants were represented by an attorney.

“It also showed that we have cases of serial evictions, where you have people that are being sued over and over. More than 50% of the cases that we’re looking at show serial evictions,” said Metro Council member Zulfat Suara. “There was something in there about one person or one group being sued more than 40 times.”

She said the process started two years ago when the issue of the right to counsel was first brought to her by someone with United Way while Suara was chair of the Affordable Housing Committee. She then asked for a study that showed the vast majority of people being evicted in Nashville did not have legal representation, which she says all feeds into the issue of affordable housing.

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“We know that with the rising cost of living in Nashville, with stagnant income, people are having problems finding places to live, gentrification, all of that leading into it,” she said. “We know that when people lose their homes, there’s a lot of things that are impacted, there’s the children’s school is impacted, and the quality of life is impacted. I mean, we have more homelessness, things that cost us more money on the side.”

She said Metro Council was very supportive of providing legal counsel to families that could not afford it.

“You have to have your head in the sand to not know housing is an issue in Nashville,” said Suara. “So, anything that can help our residents, anything that can keep people in their home, everybody wants to do something. And this is a model that is being used in other places that we know works.”

This year, Metro Council approved $2.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds to go to Legal Aid Society and Conexion Americas for a two-year pilot program.

According to Legal Aid Society Executive Director DarKenya Waller, housing became an even bigger issue with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a Legal Aid Society, our numbers kind of went through the roof relative to housing. We do all sorts of legal services but housing became the major issue that we were seeing and so we knew we had to respond,” said Waller. “We had not had as many housing issues, although they were certainly prevalent particularly as Middle Tennessee grows and expands. But our staff is limited. And this will give our staff the opportunity to grow to actually begin to meet the need.”

Legal Aid Society is expected to increase its team of housing attorneys in Nashville from two to six to handle the additional clients and outreach.

“We knew that something needed to be done to be able to help level the playing field,” said Waller. “The goal here is to simply make the fight fair. If ultimately, it is determined any eviction is appropriate, then we certainly, expect that to happen. But it typically happens by default, or almost unilaterally if that person is not represented by an attorney. And we want to make it fair.”

All low-income Davidson County residents will be eligible for these services, including immigrant communities.

“Everything that DarKenya shared as a challenge is faced by immigrant communities and low-income families as well and many times in a greater exposure because of lack of language, lack of being fluent with the communication with the lingo,” said Martha Silva of Conexion Americas. “Many of our families due to new arrivals in America, are not necessarily aware of their rights and responsibilities.”

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Silva explained that communities in Southeast Davidson County have been heavily affected by evictions in the past two years.

“Conexion Americas is partnering with Metro and Legal Aid Society just to make sure that we also provide resources that are bilingual, culturally competent to families, to the immigrant community here in Southeast Nashville,” said Silva. “We understand that if an eviction is following the law and the process has followed the rights of the rental, that eviction needs to take place legally, of course. We want to make sure that in those evictions that are unfair, that are not legal, that is not appropriately processed, people have the right to be represented.”

They said the program is the first of its kind in Middle Tennessee and takes a comprehensive approach to provide legal counsel for tenants facing eviction. The program will offer legal services but they’ll also have legal clinics in the community, town hall meetings, and services in court.

“The other community organizations that will be at the table will also help with outreach to people and I love the fact that we’re not just talking about when you get to court, we’re talking about actually preventing stuff from happening and looking at your leases and things like that, educating people,” said Suara. “I think that’s what makes this so robust.”

Leaders are working to get it up and running in August.

“We look forward to really celebrating that moment when people can pick up that phone and say, ‘Hey, I’m in trouble, what should I do?’ and we can give them the step-by-step directions either to receive help directly from us or self-help where they’ll be able to do things that we have created for them on their own,” Waller said.