ATLANTA — Thousands of Georgians, already struggling before the pandemic, are facing homelessness now that the eviction moratorium is coming to an end. Landlords, meanwhile, worry about meeting mortgage payments as rental assistance programs scramble to keep ahead of evictions.
The reprieve had been extended to Oct. 3, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling lifted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s second nationwide moratorium last week. The action ripped through the community of renters, landlords, magistrates and organizations trying to help with the housing crisis.
“It’s imperative that we don’t have mass evictions, and there’s already a lot of people that are sort of slipping through the cracks,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance program offers financial relief for tenants affected by the COVID-19 crisis, but renters and activists say that the process does not move quickly enough to keep up with the speed of evictions in Georgia.
The moratorium prohibited landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent if they submitted a declaration form meeting the guidelines defined by the CDC to their landlord, but did not stop the court eviction process from occurring without the declaration.
The U.S. Census Household Pulse survey shows that about 100,000 Georgians are among the 4.6 million Americans likely to face eviction or foreclosure within the next two months.
Usually, there are only about 900,000 evictions nationwide during a typical year, Dunn said.
The U.S. Treasury has allotted $552 million in rental assistance to Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Households can receive up to 15 months of prior rental assistance and three months of future assistance under the state program without a dollar cap, said Deputy Commissioner Tonya Curry.
Counties and cities with more than 200,000 citizens received the majority of the funds, which came directly from the Treasury, and set up their own programs for rental assistance funding, while the remaining jurisdictions were covered by the state program. Millions are still left unused, and critics say that the bureaucratic process is blocking the distribution.
Court proceedings move quickly
Georgia’s rental assistance programs just can’t keep up with the speed that the law requires courts to go through the eviction process, said Cobb County Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan Murphy.
“When a tenant is served with an eviction action, they have to file an answer within seven days,” he said. “And the court has to have a hearing within 14 days thereafter. So that’s 21 days, from the time an eviction action is served on a tenant. Even the fastest rental assistance program in the world is not going to be able to catch up with the 21 days.”
Cobb County, one of the counties outside of the Community Affairs program, has successfully integrated on-site mediation to slow the court process, and has one of their five assistance providers available to speak with landlords and tenants at every hearing. Also, Murphy said, it has received additional funding from nonprofits.
Neighboring Cherokee County also operates its own program. But it has only one provider, MUST Ministries, to distribute government monies. Many tenants tried unsuccessfully to apply for assistance through the state program because they were unaware that county programs varied, Chief Associate Judge Gregory Douds said.
“If they applied on that website, it would just kind of go into limbo, and they had to start over by contacting MUST Ministries,” Douds said, “They thought they were in the program, and they weren’t.”
Applying proves challenging
DeKalb County landlord Yvonne Andall said that she found out about the government help while watching the news, and did not receive communication from the county directly. She worked to establish payment plans with her tenants throughout the pandemic, but none of them have used the assistance program yet.
“I told the tenants about it, but as far as me, just a landlord and taxpayer citizen, I never got anything,” Andall said. “Everybody gets a water bill in DeKalb County. Why don’t they put the notice in the water bill, or attach it to the tax bills? Why didn’t they put a little flyer in there?”
Andall said she and many other landlords have eaten up their financial reserves trying to stay afloat as tenants struggle to pay rent.
For those who depend on rent for mortgage and insurance payments, Andall said, landlords have been forced to choose between which monthly payments they will have to forgo.
“It creates a crisis,” she said. “You have to say which one don’t I pay this month? If we don’t pay the mortgage, that’s an article closure. If you don’t pay the taxes, that starts a lien. It’s a snowball effect.”
Andall said that if the rental assistance funding is going to help landlords, the process needs to be much easier. While landlords struggle financially, Andall said that tenants are struggling to complete the assistance application, due to issues with legal jargon and income verification.
Sam Gilman, a researcher and co-founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado, said that wading through legal jargon on assistance applications is especially difficult for tenants who fear for their family’s livelihood. Gilman also pointed out that verification documents can be difficult for tenants to access quickly enough to finish their application before their eviction hearing.
“These programs were built for a world that many middle class people live in, where the documents are in a filing cabinet or in a folder in an email account, but not everybody lives that way,” said Gilman.
Tenants were already at risk
These compounding difficulties force the most vulnerable communities in Georgia to suffer, said journalist and cultural anthropologist Brian Goldstone, who writes about housing and homelessness.
“The people who are most at risk of losing their homes right now were already before the pandemic started, in many cases, one or two paychecks away from eviction and helplessness,” said Goldstone.
Goldstone pointed out that homelessness and housing insecurity in Georgia were issues prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and they went largely unseen by most Georgians. The race between government money and evictions is only exposing the issue more clearly, and Goldstone believes that it could lead to a tidal wave of mass evictions.
“At the rate we’re going and getting this money distributed, combined with of course, the landlords who are even refusing to take the money, judges who are refusing to get people the protections they legally have, you know, all of that put together — even if the fictional tidal wave doesn’t materialize, we’re still going to be back to a pre-pandemic, housing epidemic in Georgia and across the country,” he said.
Dunn agreed that the U.S. rental market was unhealthy prior to the pandemic, and worries that following the lifting of the moratorium, eviction records will cause many tenants to struggle finding places to live.
He said he hopes that the U.S. will adopt legislation protecting tenants who were evicted for non-payment during the COVID-19 crisis, and referenced the Renter’s Access Act in Philadelphia, which prohibits landlords from denying a rental application based solely on a prior eviction, and requires that they explain to the tenant why they were denied, giving them the option to appeal the decision.
Communication is vital
In light of the speed of law and delayed access to money, Murphy said providers, landlords and tenants must establish strong communication practices in hopes of slowing the court process down while rental assistance is distributed.
Tenants say they struggle to get providers to return their calls. At a Cobb County Commission meeting in June, renter Denise Stroman asked that the moratorium be extended through the rest of the year because assistance was difficult to obtain.
“I’m thankful for the temporary assistance such as Star-C and Cobb Home Savers,” she said. “It’s just that when you apply for assistance, we’re having problems getting information back. We’ll send emails and calls, but no calls back.”
“That’s what my organization is doing,” she said. “Communicating, outreach and showing people how to speak up for themselves and not being afraid. Creating partnerships with your landlords, with your property managers — it’s not them over here and us over here. We’re equal because we live here.”
With the moratorium lifted, rental assistance is now the primary line of defense against mass evictions in Georgia.
Gilman, of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, said each eviction that occurs when there is money allocated to keep people in their homes is unconscionable. He said he is worried about the health of the families who will be affected.
“Every eviction is a tragedy, is a heartbreak, and really introduces a whole lot of consequences for households,” he said “It introduces intergenerational poverty, and makes it hard for kids to learn. It affects mental and physical health for everybody in the household.”