MEMPHIS, Tenn. — According to its website, the Memphis Housing Authority uses “federal funding to help very low-income people afford decent housing.” In Memphis, that means about 4 percent of the population gets help from MHA.
A WREG investigation found some of those homes may not be safe.
“Low-income renters in this city are exploited and they’re exploited often because there’s a lot of money in that exploitation,” said Alex Uhlmann, an organizer with the Memphis Tenants Union.
The homes in the voucher program lack basic amenities and the amount landlords get for rent doesn’t match the quality, he said.
When Anthony Jeffries first moved into this home in South Memphis, he was hopeful. He did it with assistance from a mental health treatment center that helped him through a tough time.
He also had help from the Memphis Housing Authority in the form of vouchers for paying rent.
According to MHA’s landlord guide, “the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is a federally funded program that assists very low-income families, the elderly, veterans and disabled families…” It goes on to state homes in the program must pass a quality standards inspection.
Documents obtained by the Problem Solvers showed Jeffries’ home at 2096 Riverside Drive passed an inspection before he moved in, but once he was there he found multiple issues.
“All the wood is rotten. This kind of rotten where you can smush in your hand. He got water leaks inside the house,” he said.
He called MHA to complain. In an email to the landlord, Justtone Jackson, MHA said they were scheduling another inspection to check on the front porch, doors, bathroom, and kitchen for issues like rotting steps and locks not being secure.
The home failed that next inspection, two months after Jeffries moved in.
We asked Uhlmann how a house could pass MHA standards two months before failing.
“That’s a great question to ask and something we see all the time,” Uhlmann said.
He said MHA doesn’t do enough to regulate landlords.
In Jeffries’ case, his rent was $895 a month for a property the Shelby County assessor found to be worth about $19,000 in all.
Jeffries’ voucher pays most of his rent, while he is responsible for about 10 percent.
But he said his landlord didn’t fix the issues he’d reported, so he stopped paying his $122. He thought that would send a message.
“If that wasn’t enough money to fix his house with, why do we even have this program?” Jeffries said.
Instead, Jackson, the landlord, decided to send Jeffries a message and evicted him for not paying his portion.
He didn’t stop there; as we were talking to Jeffries near the home the day after his eviction, the police arrived. At least four officers and multiple squad cars were parked outside the home. We heard the landlord tell officers he felt unsafe.
The WREG Problem Solvers asked Jackson about Jeffries’ rental situation and why he didn’t make updates to avoid failing inspection. He wouldn’t comment.
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WREG has spoken with other voucher recipients in similar situations, living in conditions they think shouldn’t have passed inspection.
Housing advocates tell us there’s not enough housing for all the people who need it.
“We have an extreme shortage of low and moderately-priced rental properties in Memphis,” said Mary Hamlett, Vice President of Family Programs at the Metropolitan Interfaith Association.
We asked MHA officials if the shortage contributes to unqualified homes allowed in the voucher program.
“If the owner fails to correct the deficiencies by the prescribed deadline, the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) contract for unit will be terminated and future payments stopped,” said Taylor Jolley, an Obsidian PR brand content account manager responding for MHA.
MHA declined our multiple requests for an interview.
MHA also said it ended its contract with the owner of Jeffries’ former home.
But the Housing Authority also dropped Jeffries; since he got evicted, according to policy, he can no longer receive housing vouchers.
“I really want to know who approved that house to get me in this kind of trouble here, and for he or she to be dealt with because I shouldn’t have been in that house,” Jeffries said.
When we last spoke with Jeffries, he was living in his car.
The Problem Solvers have also requested all failed inspection records from the last two years.
Housing experts also said as more out-of-state investors buy up homes, many of them won’t accept vouchers. The city should pass an ordinance classifying that as discriminatory and against the law, Uhlmann said.
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