Housing crisis will outlast aid money

Millions of dollars in housing aid could be reallocated or returned to the federal government

April Lamar, a 51-year-old mother of five in Grove Park who cleans offices for a living, is months behind on her rent.

First, her hours were cut because so many people switched to working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, she caught COVID in July and had to quarantine in her 1,350-square-foot craftsman-style bungalow for two weeks.

Paying her rent has been Lamar’s biggest concern, and she fears becoming homeless with her children.

“I think about that all the time,” Lamar said. “I see so many people out there like that. That’s kinda scary.”

Thanks to rental assistance from the city of Atlanta, and a forgiving landlord, Lamar is not in imminent danger of eviction.

Lamar received close to the maximum $5,000 from Atlanta’s program, which is administered by the United Way and funded by federal money from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act passed in March. She is one of thousands of people across the metro area who have received similar assistance.

But millions of dollars in funds that were supposed to help keep other residents like Lamar in their homes are now at risk of being shuttled to cover other local government expenses, mostly police salaries.

That’s because CARES money has to be returned to the federal government if it isn’t spent by Dec. 30 ― a deadline that has left local governments scrambling to get the money out the door. A last-minute deal to extend that deadline by a year as part of the most recent stimulus package stalled after President Donald Trump signaled his opposition to the bipartisan bill. Trump left Washington for Florida on Wednesday without signing it.

“There is now a lot of uncertainty,” said Eryn Hurley, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties. “We do understand that we are getting down to the wire about how to allocate these funds.”

The package also included an extension of a national eviction moratorium and billions in emergency rental assistance.

Local governments were given wide latitude in spending their CARES funds, and many chose to put some toward rental and mortgage assistance.

But the tight deadline and lack of existing infrastructure for housing aid posed a serious challenge to counties and cities trying to bridge the gap for residents. They rushed to distribute the money to local and national nonprofits, each with their own application processes and eligibility requirements.

Some, like DeKalb and Fulton counties, spread the funds over dozens of different nonprofits. Others, including Cobb County and the city of Atlanta, selected one or two organizations to administrate their programs. Gwinnett put some money toward nonprofits, but also worked with the magistrate court to create a new eviction prevention program.

Different approaches caused problems

The ad-hoc nature of the assistance across jurisdictions caused problems for needy residents seeking help.

Most required internet access to upload documents, a barrier for some low income people. Generally, participating landlords have to agree to give a discount on back-rent or forgo late fees, and some have chosen not to, rendering their tenants ineligible.

Collecting and verifying documents from people in crisis has also slowed the process and led to high drop-out rates among applicants, according to advocates and program administrators.

Cobb County gave a total of $14 million of its $132 million of its CARES Act funds to mortgage and rental assistance. Like the other metro counties listed here, that number does not include funds passed on to cities within the county, some of which also allocated money to housing.

Earnest Davis, local coordinator for HomeFree-USA, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that received the bulk of that money, said he expected his organization would end up returning more than half of the $12 million it received from the county if the deadline isn’t extended. He estimated about 60 percent of the people who reach out for assistance fail to complete the application process.

“They apply and ask questions afterward, and then realize in the application process that they don’t qualify or they don’t want to provide all the paperwork or their financial situation changes,” he said. “I believe that we made every effort that we could to make sure that if there was someone who did not understand the process, our counselors could walk them through it.”

Housing advocates and residents seeking assistance say some of the programs have done a poor job reaching out to those in need, and the application processes are cumbersome and opaque. Many start the process only to find they are ineligible for one reason or another.

Atlanta officials have said they would spend about half of the $22 million originally allocated for housing aid, after being flooded with applications from people who lived outside the city. The United Way, the agency hired to distribute the city’s housing assistance, has since said it expects to distribute $15 million ― nearly 70 percent of the funds.

“We were all along confident that with any extension, we would be able to get that money spent,” said United Way president and CEO Milton J. Little, Jr.

Mary Wilson, an Atlanta resident who works as a private chef, saw her income dry up in March. She said it took her two hours to upload all the required documentation to the United Way’s website.

“If it took me that long, you can’t imagine how long it would take for a single mother in downtown Atlanta with four screaming kids,” she said.

A week after Wilson applied she was redirected to another non-profit and asked to upload all the same information again. She said that she withdrew her application out of frustration.

DeKalb resident Norri Miller was laid off from his job waiting tables at the Original Pancake House in late March, one of countless restaurant industry workers to have their life upended by the pandemic.

“Whenever I hear about one [organization] or another, once I get to them and apply, they’ve run out of funds or they don’t have any funds left,” he said. “If the money is there and it’s not being used for anything else, why would you not do your job as officials and help people stay in their homes when you know what’s going on with the world?”

Justin Bleeker, the executive director of Grove Park Renewal, an affordable housing nonprofit and Lamar’s landlord, credited Atlanta’s program with helping keep his organization afloat: some 13 out of 25 tenants received rental assistance from it.

But he was also critical of the city’s inability to connect residents with the program and get all the money out the door in time.

“The information was available to those connected to the power structure,” he said. “The city struggles to reach the vulnerable and the marginalized.”

Timeframe of CARES Act ‘unrealistic’

The deadline to spend CARES Act money on pandemic-related expenses coincides with the expiration of a Centers for Disease Control eviction ban. Housing experts have sounded alarms about a looming catastrophe in an area already suffering under a deep housing crisis.

“The timeframe in which the [CARES Act] money was allocated and expected to be spent on rental assistance was a bit unrealistic,” said Susan Reif, a housing attorney and the eviction prevention project director at the Georgia Legal Services Program.

“People are being housed because of the CDC order, and when that expires they are going to need rental assistance,” she said. “The question is whether that money is going to be there or whether it’s been diverted because it had to be spent on someone else’s timeline.”

In some cases, even those who receive housing assistance could still be evicted because the grant amount is less than what they owe.

“We have unofficially encouraged them (landlords) not to do that,” said Little of The United Way.

Little gave several explanations for why his organization was having trouble distributing the money. He said those in most dire need assistance often lacked internet access and were unable to upload the required documentation on their smart phones. Some renters had verbal agreements with their landlords and couldn’t provide proof of a lease. And some, he said, misinterpreted the nature of the eviction moratorium and thought that they weren’t liable for back payments to their landlords.

Nevertheless, the demand for rental and mortgage assistance has increased dramatically in the past few weeks as the program approaches its deadline, he added.

Melanie Kagan, CEO of the Center for Family Resources in Cobb, which did not receive CARES funds, said her organization fields 50 to 75 calls day from people looking for housing assistance.

“We get a lot of people who call who spent all their money piecing things together” from savings, 401Ks, and loans, she said. “Now they’re tapped out.”

Some advocates say more should go toward housing support.

Ellie Thaxton is a community advocate from DeKalb who has volunteered with several organizations during the ongoing crisis. She criticized the county for not spending more.

A spokesperson for DeKalb County said that out of the $125 million it received in CARES money, about $5 million has gone to nonprofits that work on housing and homelessness.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me why they chose such a smaller number given the population size we have,” Thaxton said.

Unspent money going to police and fire

Most local governments are planning to roll any unspent funds into salaries for police and fire. That’s because spending on public safety does not require proof of direct COVID-related expenses, according to guidance issued by the Treasury Department over the summer.

In Gwinnett, the county distributed $10.7 million of its $163 million of CARES Act dollars to a list of nonprofits in two rounds over the summer, and allocated about $5 million to a new eviction prevention program called RESET.

Out of the $16 million in total that Gwinnett allocated to housing and utility assistance, it had spent $2.2 million as of Dec. 10. At least two nonprofits have already identified $300,000 they will be returning to Gwinnett for re-disbursement.

“It’s going to be right down to the wire,” said Matthew Elder, the director of HomeFirst Gwinnett, which is partnering with Magistrate Court to administer the RESET program. “I’m keeping it open for as long as I can keep it open for, until the county tells me I have to stop.”

The reallocation of rental assistance comes amid increasing demands for government to invest less money in policing and more in poverty prevention programs like education and housing.

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown said that even though crime has risen during the pandemic, diverting funds to the police “lacks vision,” though he emphasized that he does not support defunding the police.

“This is a systemic issue,” he said. “You have people in this city who have lived in poverty all their lives.”

Monica DeLancy, founder of the We Thrive in Riverside Renters Association in Cobb County, also said the problems of poverty and housing predate COVID and can’t be addressed overnight.

“Cobb County was wall-to-wall with eviction before COVID,” she said. “They have money still left over because what they’re finding out is that the people who aren’t meeting the guidelines, they may not have a COVID-related factor because they were already in trouble before COVID.”

Reporters Ben Brasch, Arielle Kass and Leon Stafford contributed.