DeKalb commission gives blessing to higher cap on rental aid

07/28/2021 — Decatur, Georgia — Packed belongings wait to be loaded into a truck in the living room of Joshua Elam’s residence in Decatur, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Elam and his family have been renting this house for 2 years. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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07/28/2021 — Decatur, Georgia — Packed belongings wait to be loaded into a truck in the living room of Joshua Elam’s residence in Decatur, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Elam and his family have been renting this house for 2 years. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Move comes after Judge Asha Jackson put a local eviction moratorium in place

DeKalb County has raised the cap on the amount of aid it will provide to cover back-rent owed by local residents.

Officials said the move will address one of the biggest existing complaints about the county’s distribution of federal rental assistance funds — and, when combined with new bans on evictions, will help keep more people in their homes during the ongoing pandemic.

“We’re not gonna be able to get everyone,” Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson said Tuesday. “But I think we can get the vast majority of everyone. ... I think that these 60 extra days will allow us to get a lot of the people who would fall through the cracks, that we would not be able to serve.”

ExploreDeKalb judge issues new countywide eviction moratorium

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide ban on evictions expired over the weekend, eliminating the safety net keeping millions of struggling Americans from being kicked out of their homes and onto the streets — for a time.

In DeKalb, Chief Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson quickly issued her own order creating a countywide eviction ban that was expected to last 60 days. Then, late Tuesday, the CDC reversed course and announced its own new moratorium.

The new federal ban is scheduled to last until Oct. 3 and applies to counties with “substantial or high levels” of COVID-19. Most Georgia counties, including DeKalb, currently fall under those designations.

More than 1,700 writs of possession have already been filed in DeKalb and at least 3,000 more cases are in earlier stages of the eviction process, county CEO Michael Thurmond estimated.

The continued pause on evictions will give DeKalb more time to help people in need.

Like most other jurisdictions across the state and the country, DeKalb has struggled to quickly distribute federal rental assistance dollars. As of Friday, the county’s Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition had disbursed about $3.5 million to local landlords to cover residents’ past due rent.

That’s only about 11% of the $31 million DeKalb currently has allocated for rental and utility assistance, and the county will receive even more federal funds in the coming months.

ExploreFederal rental aid trickles out as tens of thousands of Georgians face eviction

One of the most consistent complaints lodged against DeKalb’s program has been its cap on the amount of assistance it can provide on behalf of any one renter: 60% of the amount owed, up to $10,000.

In coordination with Jackson’s local eviction ban, Thurmond proposed authorizing the program to cover 100% of all past-due rent up to 12 months.

The CEO did not need formal approval for the change, but county commissioners gave it their unanimous blessing in an informal vote Tuesday morning.

As early as next week, the commission could also approve giving a total of up to $1.5 million to three local nonprofits. DeKalb COO Zach Williams said the organizations — New Life Ministries, the International Rescue Committee and the Latin American Association — would be tasked with identifying people “who are most likely to benefit from the rental assistance program” and helping them navigate the paperwork necessary to receive aid.

Davis Johnson plans to allocate $600,000 of her district’s discretionary relief funds for similar efforts.

Lindsey Siegel is the director of housing advocacy at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, an organization that is helping with the tenant-landlord mediation process that is part of DeKalb’s assistance program. She said the county’s recent actions “will no doubt save many families from becoming homeless.”

“I applaud this change and the flexibility that the program is showing,” Siegel wrote in an email. “In the midst of the crisis we’re facing from the Delta variant, keeping families housed will save lives.”

For more information on DeKalb County’s rental assistance program, visit www.dekalbcountyga.gov/renthelp.

On the vaccination front

DeKalb County has also renewed its emphasis on COVID-19 vaccinations in recent weeks, and plans to expand an initiative offering $50 prepaid debit cards to residents who receive shots.

Thurmond said on Tuesday that a vaccination event on Aug. 14 will be dedicated to the memory of Laquitta Willis — the clerk shot and killed in June during a mask dispute at the Candler Road convenience store where she worked.

Details are still being finalized.

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