Zac Oswald (crop)

Zac Oswald

We are all navigating uncertain times. We don’t know when life is going to resume as normal. For most of us, that leaves unanswered questions and worries about the present and the future. 

Amid lost jobs, illness, closed schools, medical bills and more, the last thing you want to worry about is eviction from your home during the pandemic.

Is your landlord threatening to kick you out because you temporarily cannot pay rent? Trying to force you out by changing the locks or shutting off the utilities instead of taking you to court? What can you do about it? 

I want to assure you that you have rights as a renter. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you have a safe place to lay your head at night. Here’s what you need to know.

First and foremost, if you are struggling financially during this time, start by prioritizing the essentials of living. Focus on paying for what is going to keep a roof over your head and what is going to keep you safe and healthy.

What has changed? The Tennessee Supreme Court essentially prohibited the eviction of tenants for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic. Right now, the Supreme Court stopped nonpayment of rent evictions until June 1. To be clear, the court did not cancel rent payments – if you owe rent to your landlord, that obligation hasn’t gone away. If you can’t pay rent right now, your landlord may try to come after you for payments or even threaten eviction if you don’t pay.

However, they cannot legally evict you right now and cannot take measures to force you out. That means your landlord cannot turn off your utilities, change the locks on your doors or remove your belongings from the home. If they do take actions like this, you may be able to sue for damages.

If you’re not able to pay rent right now, you should be proactive about addressing the situation. Reach out to your landlord as soon as you can to negotiate a repayment plan for the amount you owe. Do not agree to pay more than you can afford, and don’t borrow money you can’t pay back. Seek out any financial relief that might be available to you. The Tennessee Department of Human Services offers emergency cash assistance for families who lost a job due to COVID-19. Local United Ways have created response funds and can suggest other organizations providing cash assistance.

So, what happens when the courts reopen? Your landlord must go through the court process to kick you out. Here are the steps:

• You may get a letter telling you to move because you have not paid rent. This step is not required in all counties in Tennessee, and your landlord can send this letter before the courts reopen.

• You will get a “detainer warrant.” This is the paper that tells you when you must come to court for a hearing with the judge.

• On your court date, the judge will decide if you must move out. You should go to your court date. It will be your only chance to tell your story and ask the judge for more time in your home. If you lose, you will have 10 more days to move out.

• If you have not moved out by the end of the 10 days, your landlord can have law enforcement help force you to move.

Your rights and duties as a tenant have not changed because of COVID-19. That includes your landlord’s responsibility to keep your rental property safe and habitable so that you can live peacefully. If you live in an apartment building, that also means your landlord is responsible for keeping common areas shared by you and other tenants clean and safe.

If your landlord is trying to evict you or you’re looking for more information about your rights, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands has brochures with more details for renters on its website. Different laws apply depending on the size of your county. Make sure to choose the right brochure for you.

Our legal experts are here to assist you. We have several upcoming phone-in legal clinics staffed by volunteer lawyers from the area who can provide advice and assistance for these and other civil legal issues. Please call us at 800-238-1443 or visit las.org for more information and to see if we can help you.

Zac Oswald is the managing attorney of Legal Aid Society’s Gallatin office, practicing housing and consumer law, and the team lead of the firm’s housing practice group. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a 2013 cum laude graduate of University of Miami School of Law. He started at Legal Aid Society in 2014 as a University of Miami legal corps fellow, working primarily in the family law unit. He was the 2016 recipient of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Service’s new advocate of the year award. Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. The nonprofit law firm offers free civil legal representation and educational programs to help people in its region receive justice, protect their well being and support opportunities to overcome poverty. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma. Legal Aid Society is funded in part by United Way. Learn more at las.org.

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