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Tenants’ rights bills attempt to address Tennessee’s affordable housing issues

Ashley Benkarski found out her landlord marked her as evicted months after she had voluntarily moved, leaving a black mark on her credit record.
Tennessee Lookout
J. Holly McCall
Ashley Benkarski found out her landlord marked her as evicted months after she had voluntarily moved, leaving a black mark on her credit record.

Despite laws in place, renters often find a lack of transparency from property management firms and little recourse with landlords

Ashley Benkarski was shocked when she was evicted from her Hermitage, Tenn., apartment in October 2022 — especially since she had moved out six months earlier.

The eviction notice, which was posted to her credit report, was the culmination of what she describes as a year-long ordeal after Nashville-based Freeman Webb Company sold her complex to another company.

After the sale, the new company discontinued online rent payments, said Benkarski.

“I tried paying my rent by folding it up in an envelope and writing my name and apartment number on it and putting it in the mail slot because no one would answer the door,” she said on Tuesday. “It got taken out, but I was uncomfortable not knowing who was seeing my bank information: our mailboxes had been broken into.”

The rental office phone number changed and, eventually, the office windows were blacked out. Trash pickup stopped, and the parking lot was flooded with trash, Benkarski said. One day, her car was shot during a drive-by shooting in the parking lot.

“It felt like we were kind of alone out there,” she said.

Even so, Benkarski tried to renew her lease at the end of a year but couldn’t reach anyone.

“I put my key in a piece of paper and put it in a mail slot and videoed myself doing it,” she said. “But what I didn’t expect was a false eviction.”

In spite of laws on the books, tenants in reality often have little recourse when landlords tack extra fees on rent payments, fail to repair faulty appliances and may even be subject to eviction for complaining about properties in disrepair.

Benkarski volunteers with Tennessee for Safe Homes, a statewide group advocating for renters rights and affordable housing. Group members met last week with lawmakers to discuss a slate of bills designed to provide tenants with greater leverage.

A bill sponsored by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, is targeted at “junk fees” — charges tacked on to rent payments that may not be disclosed in the lease agreement.

“We’re trying to tackle the affordable housing crisis in a way that hasn’t been preempted by the state,” said Clemmons, describing his measure as “transparency to lower costs for families.”

The Tennessee legislature overrode Metro Nashville government in 2018 and banned inclusionary zoning, the practice of requiring developers to create a certain percentage of affordable housing in new developments.

Keeping people in their homes is quintessential to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You can’t pursue any of those if you don’t have shelter.

Ashley Benkarski, TN For Safe Homes

For example, Clemmons said, a lease may not include the fee for trash pickup, which tenants may find out about only with their first month’s bill.

Another bill sponsored by Memphis Democrat Dwayne Thompson, would require landlords or management companies to disclose contact information — including the name of a property manager, email, and phone number, including one accessible 24 hours a day — prior to a potential tenant signing a lease.

Other affordable housing measures tenant advocates support include one to roll back the ban on inclusionary zoning and another that would require municipalities to adopt development strategies to increase housing density.

In Tennessee, counties with 75,000 or more residents — 17 out of 95 counties — use the Uniform Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) to specify the responsibilities of landlords and tenants.

Jamie Johnson, an attorney with the Memphis Public Interest Law Center, says that often the issue isn’t about the laws, but rather the enforcement of them: she estimates that about 83% of cases she has worked with are those of unlawful landlord conduct.

“Over 50% of the eviction calls that come into our organization — when I did legal analysis, I learned that they were actually at the root about substandard housing,” said Johnson. “Maybe a leak wasn’t fixed, a tenant follows the law and is more patient than most of us, but rather than fixing the issue the landlord would evict them.”

Both URLTA and common law in Tennessee specify a landlord cannot evict a tenant for reporting damages, items needing repair or codes violations, but Johnson said an affordable housing shortage in Shelby County often means a waiting list of tenants glad to be able to rent even apartments with problems.

Benkarski now lives with her partner in Murfreesboro. Her credit report shows she owes money to a landlord and she’s not been able to lease on her own.

“Keeping people in their homes is quintessential to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Benkarski. “You can’t pursue any of those if you don’t have shelter.”

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Holly McCall is the editor-in-chief of the Tennessee Lookout. She has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. Holly covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.
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