Paired qualitative data gathered from communities with quantitative data to understand how COVID-19 has affected neighborhood housing stability and identified potential policies and near-term interventions.
The rental market in Memphis is one of the fastest growing in the United States. Innovate Memphis, a nonprofit focused on delivering civic solutions, sought to learn how the economic factors of the novel coronavirus are impacting housing instability at the neighborhood level. Are legal and illegal evictions occurring in predominately African American neighborhoods whose residents have low incomes? What tools exist for supporting tenants during a housing crisis, and where are the gaps? How can place-based organizations in Memphis share data to make rapid decisions and interventions with residents? How does housing instability make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus?
Working with the COMMONS, a coalition of eight place-based community organizations across Memphis in primarily African American neighborhoods, Innovate Memphis collected rapid-response data using a mixed-methods approach. First, they administered surveys in five target areas: North Memphis, South Memphis, the Medical District, Binghampton, and Memphis’s inner-ring suburbs. These surveys were accompanied by interviews with neighborhood leaders and paired with data on property ownership, tax status, utility cutoffs, eviction filings, and neighborhood conditions. Innovate Memphis worked to give community members and COMMONS organizations in each neighborhood a base map with each of the data assets listed and will work with them to get feedback on what other information they need. The work highlighted for Innovate one of the most pressing issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic: unemployment. Data showed that almost 4 in every 5 respondents (78 percent) reported they or someone in their household experienced a loss of income because of the pandemic.
This statistic has had a particularly devastating impact in worsening already high levels of housing instability in the city. The survey also revealed 35 percent of respondents reported they or someone they were staying with received an eviction notice in 2020. Due largely to the federal eviction mortarium, we note that only 12 percent reported they were evicted during this time. Leaders have noted that this is merely a stopgap, however. In fact, on March 16th, 2021, a federal judge struck down the moratorium in West Tennessee, paving the way for resumption of evictions across the city.
Though measures like the eviction moratorium provide some reprieve to tenants, more needs to be done to mitigate the long term economic and social effects of the pandemic on the population. The research suggests residents are facing unprecedent rates of housing and employment insecurity and a reduction in their overall quality of life.
Findings and conclusions from Innovate's report provide a snapshot of social-economic needs during this pandemic. Their analysis led to identifying a series of opportunities related to regional housing insecurity, including addressing persistent affordability issues, growing racial disparities, widespread housing insecurity, and major barriers. Related recommendations included providing funding and support for rental assistance programs, eviction settlement programs, tenant advocacy and legal support, and a rental registry for investor owners.
The interactive approach to data collection adopted by the team made it possible to monitor new trends as they arose and follow up quickly. Community members drove the process, providing feedback on what meaningful data and interventions looked like to them. Secondary audiences included nonprofits and the University of Memphis School of Law, which Innovate Memphis is supporting on a joint city/county eviction settlement program.