Atlanta’s $22 million in federal COVID housing assistance cut in half

The $22 million in federal money that the city of Atlanta originally allocated to help people stay in their homes during COVID-19 pandemic will be cut in half and go towards plugging other holes in the city’s budget, according to legislation that the Atlanta City Council is expected to consider on Monday

The city of Atlanta and Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties all received funds from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act in April.

But the federal government, state and local governments across the nation, have a deadline of Dec. 30 to spend the money.

Cities are scrambling to get the funds out the door to avoid having to return it, while at same time adhering to federal guidelines as to how the money can be spent.

Some have done a better job that others, according various reports, and several elected officials called for the federal government to extend the deadline.

If that happens, Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen has told the city council’s Community Development and Human Resources Committee on Tuesday that the money will be redirected to housing support.

Atlanta has struggled to spend the money, especially with the housing assistance aspect of CARES.

Early on, city officials acknowledged the deep need that families across the city faced for assistance.

“As courts reopen and evictions resume, we are approaching a cliff that could result in thousands becoming homeless,” according to a presentation prepared by Terri Lee, Atlanta’s chief housing officer in June. “We anticipate that 10,000 to 20,000 families in the City of Atlanta may need assistance paying their rent due to COVID hardships.”

But at this point, it appears that only $11 million dollars will be spent by the deadline Interim Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen told the council’s Community Development and Human Resources Committee. Roughly 3,000 families will have been helped to stay in their homes.

To ensure that the rest of the money is spent by the deadline, the money is being shifted to cover city expenses, such as hazard pay for city employees who have been most exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Tim Franzen, chairman of the Housing Justice League in Atlanta, said how the city created its policies for who received the money set up unnecessary barriers to those with the most desperate needs.

For example, the city required applicants to show proof of their leases, he said. Many of Atlanta’s poor don’t have traditional leases with their landlords and pay their rent on a month to month basis.

That obstacle could have been overcome by having a landlord sign an affidavit, or provide some other proof of residency, Franzen said.

“With that piece of policy you are knocking out the poorest of the poor,” Franzen said.

Franzen criticized another aspect of the city’s program that excluded people who already received government housing subsidies.

He also said the city did not adequately promote the program. Franzen said overall it reminded him of the 2008 housing crisis where money intended to provide relief to people was redirected to government coffers.

Alice Pickett, 76, who works at an upscale furniture consignment store in west Midtown, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was out of work for nine weeks during the spring and summer. She said had no idea the city in October expanded its CARES Act housing assistance from renters to people with mortgage payments.

“I never even thought about applying,” said Pickett, who owns a home near the store.

The city contracted with the United Way to administer the funds.

Milton J. Little Jr., president and CEO of The United Way of Greater Atlanta, told the committee on Tuesday that the eviction moratorium from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave some people the false sense that their rent was being forgiven.

“It helped slow down the urgency that people had to make good on their debt obligation,” he said.

Little said that more than half of the people who applied for the housing support lived outside the city limits. He also said that people who may have qualified for the money couldn’t provide copies of their lease agreements or prove that they couldn’t pay for their housing because of COVID-19.

“It’s really unfortunate that we find ourselves where we are in terms of how we have to move such a significant amount of money given how great we know the need is,” Community Development and Human Resources Committee Chairman Matt Westmoreland said.