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A “tidal wave” of a problem | New money for rent assistance is helping contain tense housing situation in East Tennessee

Legal Aid of East TN is helping connect people with relief money. Attorneys say it is easing tensions between landlords and renters. Here’s how they can help you.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — During the pandemic, millions of people across the U.S. got behind on rent or utility payments, straining the relationship between tenants and landlords.

New federal funding, some provided through the American Rescue Plan that was signed into law in March along with extended eviction protections, is helping ease some of that stress for both renters and owners. For some people, it’s coming just in time.

“It’s barely contained right now,” said Holly Fuller of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, a non-profit law firm that helps low-income clients. “We have felt for quite some time that about this time of year, things are probably going to get really rough."

The American Rescue Plan designates about $40 billion to housing assistance total. More than $20 billion of that is going to state and local governments to help cover owed rent and utility costs for low-income households.

The City of Knoxville and Knox County announced the new Knox Housing Assistance program that does just that.

RELATED: Knoxville leaders announce Knox Housing Assistance program

Credit: WBIR

Both the tenant and landlord have to apply to get the funding, but officials say the money can be used to pay up to 12 months of past-due rent or utilities and even future rent payments in some cases.

If you don’t live in Knox County, there is a similar application process on the state’s housing website. Legal Aid of East Tennessee said when that money is approved, it goes directly to the landlord.

If you don’t have access to a computer or there is a language barrier, you can call (844) 500-1112.

With this new assistance, and a year into the pandemic, Fuller said Legal Aid of East Tennessee has seen an increase in people coming to them for help, especially because tenants know eviction protections are expiring at the end of June.

Right now, in addition to in-house attorneys, the organization is using grant money to contract private lawyers to help with the caseload.

“The tensions may have relaxed a little bit. The resources have started to flow, giving some people a little bit of breathing room, but if something doesn't change by the end of this month, then the phrase that we have used in our organization since the very beginning is a tidal wave,” Fuller said.

Credit: WBIR

Fuller said the goal is to help clients reach an agreement that benefits both the tenant and the landlord – whether that means getting monetary assistance or working out an agreement so that there is not an eviction on the renter’s record. Additionally, she said their attorneys walk people through proceedings if their landlord has already started the eviction process in the courts.

“The landlords are in a rough spot too and they need some relief as well, and that's why it's so important to tap into the resources so that we can solve the problem on both ends to try to keep our vulnerable people housed,” she said.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee can also help people get into a safer, different housing situation or connect them with other community resources.

Fuller said her biggest piece of advice is not to wait to reach out for help.

“Call us the moment you get a hint that something's going to happen,” she said. “It's so traumatic to think you might be facing homelessness. A stress response is just to ignore it. Don't do that. We can help your stress we can talk you through it."

Fuller said she has seen cases where tenants have lost housing because they didn’t apply for assistance in time or didn’t know how to get that money. She also said that in some cases, renters get representation too late.

“Call us call us quickly. We're here, we're here for you. The earlier we can begin our relationship the better,” Fuller said.

To get in contact with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, you can call any of their offices located at the bottom of their website.

Different grants allow them to serve people that fall into several different categories.

In Knoxville, they are located at 607 West Summit Hill Drive SW or you can call (865) 637-0484.

Read other stories in our “Pay or Leave: The Rent Crisis” series: