Groups ask Kemp to protect homeowners and tenants

A collection of religious groups, service organizations and elected officials is urging the governor to temporarily ban evictions and foreclosures as virus-linked shutdowns cost tens of thousands of Georgians their jobs.

The letter, signed by 135 groups and 32 elected officials and delivered Thursday to Gov. Brian Kemp, argues that many homeowners and tenants need protection during the coronavirus pandemic.

"As many as one in five workers have had their hours reduced or lost their jobs," the letter says. "This, in turn, will create a new crisis: a housing and eviction crisis. We urge you to take decisive action to head off this looming housing crisis."

The group has proposed an executive order that would temporarily:

  • Protect families from fees for late rent payments.
  • Protect homeowners from foreclosure.

The measure would not relieve homeowners and tenants of their debts, just prevent an epidemic of homelessness, said Michael Waller, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which helped organized the effort.

“Having a stable and safe home is just critical – now more than ever,” he said.

As of late Thursday afternoon, the governor’s office had not responded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for comment about the letter.

The 2008 financial crisis and recession that followed led to an estimated 5 million foreclosures, including about 250,000 in metro Atlanta.

Since then, the economy has improved and foreclosures have steadily fallen, reaching a record low before the coronavirus outbreak.

The recent closures set off a flood of job cuts that threaten the ability of many homeowners and renters to make their next monthly payments.

On Thursday, the Georgia Labor Department said it processed 133,820 claims for unemployment insurance last week – more than 10 times as many as the week before.

An emergency measure passed by Congress and signed by the president has put money in the pipeline that will help many of those who have been laid off.

That money may not arrive in time for everyone.

Also, federal action prohibits foreclosures involving millions of mortgages that are backed by Fannie MaeFreddie Mac or the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

However, about one-third of the nation’s mortgages are not covered, including many “sub-prime” loans that were made to borrowers whose income or credit ratings made them riskier financial bets.

In metro Atlanta's five core counties, about 300 homes are slated to be sold in auctions on the courthouse steps, according to Sarah Bolling Mancini, a senior attorney in the Home Defense program at Atlanta Legal Aid.

“We are concerned about how that impacts the low-income people across the state of Georgia,” she said. “They are the most vulnerable of homeowners.”

In many states, a foreclosure requires a court process, but not in Georgia.

When homeowners are delinquent, the holders of the loans need only publish notice of the impending foreclosure, then go to the local county courthouse on the first Tuesday of the month to publicly auction off the property.

If the home sells for less than what the homeowner still owes on the mortgage, the owner would lose the house and still owe money to the lender.

The next set of auctions is next week.

Attorneys for some of the vulnerable homeowners argue that the virus-triggered crisis justifies holding off on the auctions.

Harold Melton, the chief justice for the Supreme Court of Georgia, recently ordered all non-essential judicial action suspended. And, even though foreclosures do not require court hearings, the justice has the authority to halt them, Mancini of Legal Aid said.

State law gives the Superior Court of each Georgia county the power to move foreclosure auctions when there is a danger to the people involved.

“If there is no place that is safe to hold sales, in a public health emergency for example, then there would be no place authorized for public sales in that month,” Mancini said.

Moreover, with so many people afraid to go out, or ordered to stay home, any auction on the courthouse steps would not be “public” as legally requires, she said.

A spokeswoman for Melton said there were no actions or requests before the court related to the auctions.

Waller, of the Appleseed Center said the groups behind the letter, decided to focus their efforts on Gov. Kemp.

“We just don’t want a scatter-shot response,” he said.