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A program that provides legal assistance and rent relief for Chattanooga residents has helped 160 households avoid eviction during a nine-month period ending in June, an approximately 40% increase over a similar time frame last year, according to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Local advocates want to keep the work of the Hamilton County Eviction Prevention Initiative going and are planning to shift management of the program from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and its partners assembled the program at the height of the pandemic to respond to an emerging need, Maeghan Jones, the foundation’s president said.

The city has committed $1.5 million in federal relief funds to the initiative. The first third of that was transferred in September 2021. On Sept. 19, the Chattanooga City Council is set to consider a resolution that would redirect the final $500,000 to Legal Aid of East Tennessee rather than the Community Foundation, which would adjust an existing agreement.

“We’ve been able to pilot and incubate that program for the last three years and I feel have demonstrated the efficacy of the program,” Jones told City Council members Tuesday. “We think it’s time to find a permanent home.”

Eviction prevention

Organizers of the Hamilton County Eviction Prevention Initiative shared the following statistics with the Chattanooga City Council on Tuesday.

Number of households avoiding eviction:

— 160 between October 2022 and June 2023.

— 112 between October 2021 and September 2022.

Number of households that received case management, enabling them to avoid homelessness:

— 68 between October 2022 and June 2023.

— 22 between October 2021 and September 2022.

Amount of money distributed to landlords to make up for lost rent and help families stay housed:

— $400,199 between October 2022 and June 2023.

— $224,742 between October 2021 and September 2022.

Source: Hamilton County Eviction Prevention Initiative

Along with other responsibilities, the Community Foundation manages the overall program and completes grant reporting to the city. It also has subcontracts with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, which handles legal representation for participants, and Habitat for Humanity, which provides social work case management.

Attorney Emily O’Donnell also offers assistance with legal strategy and research for the program, and a flex fund housed at the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition helps cover court costs and other expenses.

Under the new setup, Legal Aid of East Tennessee would take over management and grant reporting to the city while also continuing to provide legal representation to families. The responsibilities of the program’s remaining partners will remain the same, according to a breakdown provided to council.

Although the city contract would move to Legal Aid, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga would continue to be involved in fundraising. The organization has so far secured about $500,000 from donors and other funding sources, Jones said. Through funding from the MacClellan Foundation, the organization is also commissioning a cost-benefit analysis that will help officials understand the savings to the public realized through the program.

Partners have been ramping up their efforts to reach more households. Since May, officials have sent 1,000 postcards to people on eviction dockets. The postcards contain information about how people can obtain aid through the eviction prevention initiative. The program has seen an increase in households seeking services, Jones said, and Legal Aid has hired a full-time intake person to handle the volume.

Jones believes those changes have helped partners boost the number of people they’re assisting. The 160 households aided since October total 405 people, including 206 children. The program has also helped landlords secure more than $400,000 from October through June, an increase over the nearly $225,000 distributed between October 2021 and September 2022.

“It’s a hardship for landlords as well as tenants,” Jones said, noting the funding keeps the landlord whole and tenants in place.

Debra House, the executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, said the organization has been involved in the program since its inception in 2020 and now has two lawyers dedicated to the initiative, plus a paralegal handling intakes.

“I think the clients will see absolutely no difference in the services they receive,” House said in a phone call about the proposed change.

Residents with legal representation are much more likely to have their cases dismissed.

“We know that having a lawyer can make all the difference in outcomes, no matter what it is in our legal system,” House said. “The bottom line is keeping people stably housed so they’re not looking at homelessness.”

Contact David Floyd at [email protected] or 423-757-6249.

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