Helping Memphis and Shelby County Address Housing Instability through Data Services

Author: Sonia Torres Rodríguez
Date Posted: May 31, 2022

Housing instability has long been a concern in Shelby County, Tennessee, with eviction filings averaging more than 30,000 annually between 2016 and 2019. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created an even greater need for Memphians to focus on stabilizing renters’ housing situations. Innovate Memphis, the local member of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), was able to act quickly when the pandemic struck, and connect multiple efforts aiming to reduce racial inequities in housing. By leveraging trusted relationships and the infrastructure to assemble and analyze data, Innovate Memphis was able to improve court processes, better understand who is affected by housing instability and was made more vulnerable by the pandemic, and target outreach and resources to those most in need. 

Through the Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-19 Response & Recovery grant program, Innovate Memphis partnered with Whole Child Strategies and the COMMONS, a coalition of eight place-based community organizations across Memphis in primarily African-American neighborhoods, to understand how the pandemic was affecting tenants. Innovate Memphis administered surveys in five focus areas and combined the results with interviews with neighborhood leaders and administrative data on property ownership, tax status, utility cutoffs, eviction filings, and neighborhood conditions. Working with its partners, Innovate Memphis was able to design the survey to be representative of those communities and ensure Black Memphians had a chance to participate. Almost 4 In 5 survey respondents indicated someone in their household experienced income loss, and the results highlighted the pandemic’s disparate impact on Black communities. The results of the survey and Innovate Memphis’s final report have been used by Whole Child Strategies and members of the COMMONS to inform their programs and target their advocacy efforts to improve policies and increase resources for communities of color.  

Innovate Memphis also supported the design and evaluation of Shelby County’s Eviction Settlement Program (ESP), a first-of-its-kind program that used $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, such as the CARES Act and the Emergency Rental Assistance program, to provide funding for attorneys to represent tenants and negotiate settlements with landlords to keep tenants in their homes. As shared by the Shelby County Division of Community Services, Innovate Memphis was critical in quickly getting access to data from a fragmented system of eviction and emergency assistance stakeholders across the courts, city, and county. They helped the county target outreach to tenants before they got to court and to neighborhoods where housing instability was high. Innovate Memphis also evaluated the outcomes of the program to document its positive impacts, especially for the most-marginalized renters. Through the evaluation, they found the ESP has prevented 1,155 households and more than 4,000 people from becoming homeless. This information will be critical to making the case for local investment in the ESP program once federal resources run out.  

In addition to elevating tenants’ needs and supporting programs to connect them to resources, Innovate Memphis partnered with other local stakeholders to conduct observations of the evictions court process. They learned few tenants had representation and that most who did had attorneys paid for through pandemic relief funds and that there were high rates of tenants not showing up for court, resulting in a default judgment in the landlord’s favor. Advocates will use this information in their efforts to make the evictions process fairer and improve tenant outcomes. Through these projects and their ongoing research and collaborations, Innovate Memphis has expanded local capacity to use data to understand and address housing instability and reduced hardship for the most marginalized renters in Shelby County.  

In May 2022, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) conferred the G. Thomas Kingsley Impact Award to Innovate Memphis. This award recognizes an NNIP partner organization that has demonstrated impact using data to improve local policy and practice to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods. This story was written by Sonia Torres Rodríguez at the Urban Institute, with the support of Altonio Smith and Austin Harrison from Innovate Memphis, and Christopher Baker from Whole Child Strategies Inc. NNIP is a learning network, coordinated by the Urban Institute, that connects independent partner organizations in more than 30 cities. Innovate Memphis is the partner organization for the city of Memphis. 

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