For many Georgians, the countdown to 2021 will bring a sliver of joy after a chaotic and depressing year. But for thousands of renters who have fallen behind on payments because of the pandemic, the end of the year triggers the menacing reality that they could be displaced from their homes.
For the last four months, tenants who are unable to pay rent have been able to effectively halt eviction cases filed against them under an order issued in early September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that nationwide moratorium on evictions is set to expire Dec. 31. Without an extension by the federal government, courts are set to allow stalled evictions to go forward.
Records indicate tens of thousands of eviction cases are pending in just five metro-area counties. Around the state, as many as 160,000 households could be at risk of eviction at the end of the year if the moratorium is not extended, according to the latest estimates from investment bank and financial advisory firm Stout Risius Ross.
Local renters like Jared Richardson are spending the holiday season researching ways to stay in their homes, worried they could lose their housing if the eviction ban expires. Richardson, a 32-year-old former Stanford University professor, is a self-employed freelance writer and researcher, but those opportunities largely dried up when the pandemic hit. He fell behind on this rent at the Platform Apartments near Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood, where he lives in a one-bedroom apartment.
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
The complex filed for eviction against Richardson on Sept. 21, Fulton County court records show, but he quickly issued a document that would keep the county marshals from showing up and evicting him, at least through the end of the year.
“I’m just trying to figure out some plan B,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Without broad relief programs for tenants, local housing advocates worry the moratorium’s expiration means many renters will be left homeless after being evicted. Landlords have also called for more financial assistance for tenants and property owners, and said they suffer financially when their renters are unable to pay.
The CDC moratorium, announced Sept. 4, bars a tenant from being evicted if they give their landlord a document attesting to four things: that they make under $100,000 a year, lost income during the pandemic, an eviction would likely force them into homelessness and that they are paying what they can and seeking assistance. The order does not forgive rent, meaning tenants must still pay what they owe when the moratorium ends.
There’s no way to know exactly how many people in Georgia have sought those protections. Renters are only required to file that declaration with their landlord, not with the courts. But publicly available data on evictions filings show just how many are at risk of being displaced during the pandemic.
In just five metro Atlanta counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton — landlords filed nearly 40,000 evictions from March to November, according to data compiled by researchers at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Tech and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Some of those cases have been resolved, while many are still pending.
Eviction filings saw a large drop-off from April to July, but picked back up going into the fall. November saw the highest number of filings in metro Atlanta since March, the data shows.
Renters across Georgia, of all races, genders and ages, could be at risk if the moratorium expires. In Hall County, 67-year-old Pamela Bedard is just $376 behind on rent at her townhome complex. She normally relies on her ex-husband for some support, but he lost his job when the pandemic hit. Now, she’s worried she could be displaced if the moratorium isn’t extended, though her complex hasn’t filed an eviction against her yet.
“I’m terrified of becoming homeless,” said Bedard, who lives by herself in the small city of Lula. “I don’t know how to be homeless. I don’t even know how to go about it.”
Viraj Parmar, who runs the manages the Housing Court Assistance Center for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, said the number of people seeking help at the free clinic has remained steady since the pandemic hit. He estimated that he meets with about 10 to 12 people a day. Many don’t know about the eviction moratorium until Parmar tells them.
Credit: Melissa Golden/The New York Times
Credit: Melissa Golden/The New York Times
“They’re kind of excited, until I give them the reality that it expires Dec. 31,” Parmar said, adding that he has helped 175 renters file for protections under the CDC moratorium. “There’s a lot of anxiety.”
Housing advocates have called on the federal government to extend the moratorium, arguing it protects people from becoming homeless and helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus. If it made sense to implement a moratorium in September, “then it certainly makes more sense today,” Parmar said. “Especially as the virus count and the deaths explode.”
Some landlords have challenged the CDC order, filing a federal lawsuit in Georgia seeking to strike it down. The suit is still pending. One of the plaintiffs in that case, Sonya Jones, rents out a house in Jesup, about 40 miles from Brunswick. Jones said she has taken a financial hit after her tenants were not able to pay several months of rent and sought protections under the CDC moratorium.
“How am I supposed to pay my taxes?” said Jones, who has filed an eviction against her renters. “I’m trying to wait until Dec. 31, if they don’t extend it. ... I would rather them just be out.”
Organizations that represent the multifamily housing industry have called for more support for the government.
Atlanta Apartment Association President Jim Fowler said in a statement he was " extremely disappointed” that the moratorium was put in place without direct financial assistance for tenants and property owners. Several local governments have used federal relief funds to help renters, but Fowler said many of those initiatives “face barriers due to strict application requirements and red tape.”
The association estimated that Georgia apartment owners have lost about $300 million collectively due to unpaid rent this year.
“Our members understand the emotional and financial stress that many of our residents are facing and remain committed to working with them through this crisis,” Fowler said, adding that filing for an eviction is “an absolute last resort.”
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution