That made Moore luckier than most in her position. But it didn’t make it easy.
“I have all this help, but I can’t use it,” she said in August, a few weeks into her search.
Metro Atlanta is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. The area’s population has been steadily growing for many years, but construction hasn’t kept up. During the pandemic, rents went through the roof, and have largely stayed there.
Even those fortunate enough to secure assistance are finding it increasingly tough to find a home. Vouchers haven’t kept up with rent increases. By law, tenants aren’t allowed to pay more than their pre-determined share. Landlords aren’t required to accept vouchers, and many don’t.
Available housing for low-income renters continues to shrink, according to Brandie Garner, the director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program at the Marietta Housing Authority. She points to several factors, including the growth of investor-owned complexes with stricter credit requirements and more fees than smaller landlords.
“There’s no flexibility. If you don’t check all the boxes, then the answer is no,” Garner said.
Meanwhile, waitlists for housing vouchers remain staggeringly long. More than 175,000 people competed for 13,000 spots on the waitlist when the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which runs the housing choice voucher for most counties in the state, opened its applications for four days in October. In the city of Atlanta alone, the waitlist, which hasn’t been reopened since 2017, has roughly 20,000 families.
‘Need a miracle’
Moore, the military veteran, lost her mother the day after she turned 13. Gone was her stability, her foundation, her safety net. She turned to the ROTC in junior high and later joined the Marine Corps in her early 20s. A lance corporal, she worked in administration, helping recruits transition to their units.
But in June, Moore’s structure once again fell from underneath her. She failed a drug test after she says she was slipped a drug at a bar. At first, she thought she would get a hearing to explain that she hadn’t knowingly consumed drugs, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she was given a general discharge under honorable conditions, meaning that although her work was good, the military determined her behavior didn’t meet expectations.
She was given five days to move out of her duplex on base. Within weeks, she exhausted her savings and was living in her car in metro Atlanta.
Moore’s voucher is administered by the Marietta Housing Authority through the HUD—Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This allowed her to bypass the waitlist that most civilians are stuck in. Out of 17,000 applications in May, the first time Marietta’s waitlist was open since 2015, the housing authority randomly selected 750 households, according to Garner. She estimates it may take three years to issue vouchers to all of them.
Over the summer, armed with a voucher but no home, Moore split her time between her sister’s house in Thomasville, where her 8-year-old son was staying, and Atlanta, where she sought work.
When she could scrape together enough money from driving for DoorDash, she occasionally spent a night at a Motel 6. In August, she got a job at the airport working security night shifts, but her first paycheck went to bills and paying back people who loaned her money.
“I basically need a miracle,” she said in early August.
Rental search a full-time job
Across Georgia, more than 320,000 people were considered extremely low income in 2021, meaning they didn’t make more than 30% of the median income in the area, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. On average statewide, that translated to $22,636 annually.
More than three-fourths of such households spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities. Nationally, only one in four eligible households actually receive rental assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Moore’s voucher is more money than most because it’s through the program for veterans.
But like many low-income families in the Atlanta area, she struggled to find an apartment at a price her voucher would cover — or that’s safe. She read reviews for one place that said she can expect to be robbed.
“Everything either has a waiting list or it’s unlivable, the living conditions are unacceptable. I don’t want to have to sacrifice between getting robbed and having a roach infestation,” she said a couple weeks into her search.
In early August, Moore had reason to be hopeful.
She went to see an apartment at a quiet complex in Marietta lined with trees and cheery yellow apartments. The white porch railing shifted slightly as she leaned up against it. She could see herself living here — a nice home in a safe neighborhood with a park and a library nearby.
Most importantly, her housing voucher covered the rent, and the landlord would accept it.
As she walked through the bedrooms, the kitchen with stainless steel appliances, the light-filled living room, Moore’s voice was full of hesitant optimism.
“I’m already in love,” she said.
Moore and the landlord signed the paperwork. But the deal fell apart by the end of the week. The current tenants decided not to move out. Moore was forced to start over with her search.
Finding an apartment became almost a full-time job. Moore’s options were limited because her voucher only applied to two-bedroom units in Cobb County zip codes, and it covered up to about $1,900 a month once utilities are deducted and minus her contribution, which is 30% of her monthly income.
Moore was on the phone from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. calling apartments, sometimes 15 to 20 places a day. It wasn’t long before she started to run out of options she hadn’t tried.
“I’ve called so many people, and so many people will just say, ‘No, I’m sorry, we don’t accept it,’ the minute that I think I’ve found a livable circumstance or a livable situation. So, it’s kind of like dang,” she said in early August.
‘Depressing and frustrating’
Atlanta was the first city in the nation to create public housing in the 1930s. In 1983, the federal government moved low-income households into the open rental market by offering vouchers that allowed them to rent from private landlords. By 2011, all of Atlanta’s public housing properties had been demolished, cementing the reliance on vouchers.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that in 2021 there was a deficit of more than 120,000 available apartments that are affordable for extremely low-income renters in Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta alone.
Dan Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, says the gap is a legacy of emphasizing vouchers rather than building more affordable housing.
“It’s depressing and frustrating,” he said. “It’s basically left us at the will of the market.”
Prices for new leases dipped 2.3% in March from a year earlier in metro Atlanta, brokerage firm Redfin estimated. However, rent rose 22% between January 2021 and June 2022 as housing costs soared during the pandemic, according to Atlanta Housing.
Voucher amounts are dictated by HUD’s calculation of “fair market rent” in each zip code, which is supposed to be enough for a home a bit below the median rent.
HUD increased fair market rents during the pandemic, but roughly at the rate of inflation, which wasn’t enough, according to Immergluck.
In September, HUD increased the fair market rents by an average of almost 19% — about $291 — across metro Atlanta. But it takes time for any change to reach all voucher holders because of administrative and budgetary challenges.
In mid-October, the Marietta Housing Authority increased the voucher amounts by an average of $182 for a two-bedroom. Pre-existing voucher holders will see the increase in the new year.
Aspiring renters also are increasingly wrestling with rising upfront fees from landlords. At one point, Moore contemplated selling lemonade in front of Walmart to cover the $275 application and administration fee for an apartment.
Local governments are looking for other ways to address the affordable housing crisis. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announced last month that Atlanta Housing would add 2,000 new project-based vouchers for landlords to rent units to low-income households. The move is part of the mayor’s ambitious goal of creating 20,000 affordable units by 2030.
Building a new home
Before the pandemic, most voucher holders in Marietta were able to find a place in 30 to 60 days. Now, it’s taking almost four months, according to Garner.
Moore, as a military veteran, was more fortunate. In mid-September, almost two months after she got a voucher, and after weeks of sleeping in her car, she moved into an apartment.
Her voucher covers rent and Hope Atlanta, a nonprofit that helps people facing homelessness, paid the move-in fees.
The apartment, with its spacious kitchen, carpet soft enough for her morning yoga and gray walls that match her furniture, is starting to feel like home. Manicured flower beds line the streets of the quiet community.
“I can finally just exhale,” she said, one fall day shortly after she moved in.
Even with the voucher, money is still tight. Moore needed to come up with $200 to turn on the electricity, almost as much as her monthly car payment. That’s on top of the $270 she spent replacing three tires after a series of unlucky flats and $167 for her monthly phone bill.
When all her things were delivered from military storage, she set up her son’s toy monster truck on the shelf in his closet. Due to her work schedule, it was another month before she could pick him up from her sister’s house and her son could see his new bedroom for the first time.
Moore plans to order Panda Express, make s’mores and watch movies with him in their new home. She wants to get dark purple wallpaper for his room and make clouds out of LED lights and cotton to hang from his ceiling.
“I love being able to say I am ready to go home and not be talking about a car,” she said.