For more than a year, Breanna Brimmage has lived at the Azure at Riverside Apartments in Austell with her 4-year-old daughter.
She worked two jobs to make ends meet, but a high-risk pregnancy forced her to stop working in February. After doctors ordered her to go on bedrest, Brimmage, 21, fell three months behind on her rent. She sought relief from local nonprofits and initially received enough through federal CARES Act funds to cover her rent and utilities.
When those funds ran low, Brimmage applied for a different rent relief program and was told in May she couldn’t get more assistance because her need wasn’t related to the pandemic.
On Friday, Brimmage gave birth to two healthy baby girls. That same day, landlords at her apartment complex served her with eviction papers.
“I’ve just been trying to figure it out. I mean, there’s not really much I can do with how I am right now,” Brimmage told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic is set to finally end this Saturday, potentially unleashing a wave of pent-up evictions around metro Atlanta.
At the same time, it has become more difficult to qualify for federal rental relief programs.
Brimmage and several other single mothers in Cobb have been calling for help from the county commission for months, saying they will be among the numbers displaced when the eviction ban is lifted.
Quantina Scott is among the advocates asking Cobb to do more to help renters keep a roof over their heads.
“People can’t just get up and move if you give them a 30-day notice. That’s not enough time to be able to deal with the market,” Scott said. “You can’t treat people like that. People are struggling right now.”
Getting help harder now
The CDC’s temporary ban was a nationwide stop-gap on all residential evictions, intended to protect those unable to pay rent due to job losses caused by the pandemic. It has already been extended five times this year, but CDC had not announced on Monday if the ban could be extended again beyond July 31.
“What we’re finding is that people are trying to call and find places to move to, landlords are not accepting applications or people are not qualified,” said Monica DeLancy, founder of the We Thrive in Riverside Renters Association, a program that connects renters with much-needed resources.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Critics say property owners are kicking existing residents out to make way for new tenants willing to pay higher rents. Some south Cobb residents feel landlords are re-gentrifying their neighborhoods to profit off the current housing boom.
“It’s something happening in our county,” Davita Carter told Cobb County commissioners during a July 13 meeting. “Some people are making millions off this pandemic — while other ones are being displaced. And it’s not fair.”
The federal government in December allocated $22.88 million in Emergency Rental Assistance relief grants to Cobb County. The county began accepting applications for those grants April 1. It’s the second pot of federal stimulus money Cobb has devoted to housing. Last year, the county earmarked $14 million of its CARES Act funding for mortgage and rental assistance.
Cobb selected five area nonprofits – Sweetwater Mission, MUST Ministries, The Center for Family Resources, Star-C and Cobb HomeSavers – to oversee distribution of the Emergency Rental Assistance grants, which can pay up to 12 months of rent and utilities for people impacted by the pandemic.
The nonprofits had disbursed nearly 35% or just under $8 million in rental relief by July 9, according to Cobb County officials. At least 65% of the money, or $14.9 million, must be distributed by Sept. 30 or it must be returned to the federal government.
The Treasury Department laid out spending rules for the Emergency Rental Assistance program that are more stringent than were required under the earlier CARES Act assistance. One of the biggest stumbling blocks Cobb applicants have faced in qualifying for relief this go-round has been proving a pandemic hardship such as being laid off or having their work hours cut.
“There’s just so much more documentation than it was before,” said Star-C executive director Audrea Rease.
The five nonprofits processing the documentation have also struggled to keep pace with the volume of applications in Cobb County, heads of four of the agencies told commissioners this month. The organizations have accepted more than 4,000 applications since April 1, denying about 382.
Cobb County chairwoman Lisa Cupid said commissioners have discussed using American Rescue Plan Act dollars and other funds to beef up staffs at the nonprofit agencies processing rental assistance applications.
County officials have also met with private developers, builders and other stakeholders to find long-term solutions to the county’s affordable housing shortage. Cupid acknowledged the concerns of community advocates who complain rents have skyrocketed too high. She said county leaders are in the process of devising formal policies to address the issue.
“This is truly a challenge that is significant,” she said. “It’s real. This is not something that they’re making up and it’s not something that we can ignore.”
Those facing eviction now say the funds have not come quickly enough to meet their need.
Brimmage applied for emergency rental assistance through Star-C but was denied in May because she failed to show a direct financial impact tied to the pandemic. Brimmage re-applied and was hoping for emergency aid when she went into labor Friday.
“I’m trying to have a backup plan just in case Star-C doesn’t come through,” she said. “I mean, my mom she’ll help me, but she only has a one bedroom. And then I already have a daughter at home, so that’ll be four of us.”
Evictions already underway
Activists who’ve spoken out about Cobb’s housing crisis say evictions are on the rise at properties that accept housing vouchers. Many of those are clustered in unincorporated areas of south Cobb County.
According to Austell resident Cynthia Johnson, at least 20 families were evicted from Azure at Riverside Apartments after owners phased out the housing voucher or Section 8 program, which pays a portion of recipients’ rent.
A spokesperson for First Communities Management, the property management company that owns Azure, said the apartment complex stopped accepting new Section 8 tenants in September 2019. The spokesperson said no voucher holders are currently being evicted, but their leases are being allowed to expire.
Sue Mealer, a disabled resident who lived at Azure for over two years, said she was asked to leave by June 30 because her rent vouchers were no longer accepted there. Mealer, 51, had to vacate her two-bedroom home and move into a hotel.
She’s had trouble finding a new residence that will take her housing vouchers. MUST Ministries covered Mealer’s hotel tab for 30 days, but she now worries that she may have to move again at the end of July.
“Just having to leave and come to a hotel, oh I broke down and cried several times,” she said. “Because nobody should have to go through this. And it’s still days I find myself starting to get sad because I’m not in a place that I call home.”
Marietta Housing Authority Executive Director Marion “Pete” Waldrep agreed that Section 8 housing options have dried up in south Cobb. But he noted that private owners are not required by law to accept the federal vouchers.
“What you’re finding right now is when times are good, landlords want to get the most rent they can possibly get,” Waldrep said. “They forget about the security of having us or anybody with vouchers sending them a check every month on time. They let that go by the wayside and start non-renewing leases for people that have vouchers.”
Earlier this month, 28 residents were asked to vacate their homes at the Legacy at West Cobb Apartments so new owners could renovate two buildings. Aspen Square Management bought the Marietta apartment complex earlier this year. Pat Keane, a spokesman for the Massachusetts developer, denied that the evictions were done for profit.
The buildings are being rehabbed to repair “deferred maintenance” issues throughout the 395-unit complex. According to Keane, apartment managers arranged for many displaced residents to move to an adjacent apartment complex and got administrative fees for their applications waived.
“The frustrating thing for me as a landlord is I know there are funds available,” Keane said. “Our industry, in general, is aware that there’s $55 billion in federal aid that was given for rental assistance. And most of that has just not been distributed yet.”
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