Millions in rental aid available in Georgia, but demand exceeds money

03/26/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —John Cirillo, 57, is photographed at his residence in Johns Creek, Friday, March 26, 2021. Cirillo, a single father, received rental assistance after losing his job in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/26/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —John Cirillo, 57, is photographed at his residence in Johns Creek, Friday, March 26, 2021. Cirillo, a single father, received rental assistance after losing his job in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

John Cirillo was making six figures as director of real estate for a fast food franchise. But a bitter divorce sapped his savings, so it didn’t take long before he was in financial trouble after being laid off last March.

The $2,100 in rent he paid after moving out of the Johns Creek house he shared with his wife was easy to cover when his monthly salary exceeded $10,000. But by September, it was too much.

Using federal coronavirus relief funds that came through Fulton County, the non-profit St. Vincent de Paul Georgia helped Cirillo pay $1,500 in utility bills and covered thousands of dollars in back rent.

Cirillo says he’s still about $6,000 behind.

“We have struggled mightily for the past year,” Cirillo said of himself and his 12-year-old son. “I’ve slid down, and I don’t know if I can come back.”

Thousands of Georgians require help paying their rent, as the harsh economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic bleed into a second year.

A federal relief bill, passed late last year, sent $710.2 million to the state to help individuals pay rent and utilities. The total included more than $129.6 million earmarked for Atlanta and Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Henry counties.

But the need is greater.

Mike Carnathan, senior manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s research and analytics group, said more than 83,000 households in the highest priority parts of the 10-county metro area make less than $50,000 a year and spend more than half their income on housing.

The federal money, while helpful, is “probably not going to be enough,” he said. And while more emergency rental assistance is expected through the recently passed American Rescue Plan, jurisdictions don’t yet know how much they will get.

DeKalb County quickly spent more than $21 million in rental aid, and CEO Michael Thurmond estimated the funds were about half what was required to satisfy the needs of more than 7,000 applicants.

“It’s stunning,” Thurmond said. “Within eight or nine days, there was no reason to apply because we just didn’t have the resources.”

In fact, the program closed earlier than expected amid the high demand. The average DeKalb tenant seeking help is between $12,000 and $15,000 behind on rent, Thurmond said.

The new federal program allows coverage of up to a year’s worth of back rent and utilities for residents who make 80% or less of the area median income — $66,150 for a DeKalb family of four. Households can also qualify for up to three months’ rent going forward, though some governments have created their own restrictions.

DeKalb is capping help at $5,000 per household and two months’ future rent.

Atlanta plans to limit payouts to $15,000. Fulton County limited help to six months of back rent and a monthly maximum of $1,300, plus $200 a month for utilities. The average Fulton County rent is $1,205 a month, while it’s $1,169 in DeKalb and $1,153 in Atlanta.

Fulton’s program was temporarily paused so officials could sort through applicants, Commissioner Bob Ellis said, including determining how many Atlanta residents might have applied to the county by mistake.

Atlanta’s program, as well as those in Clayton and Gwinnett, expect to open applications soon.

In Atlanta, an initial $22 million outlay for rental relief allocated from CARES Act money has almost been spent. Protip Biswas, the vice president of homelessness for United Way of Greater Atlanta, is administering the city’s program.

Biswas said he expects “overwhelming demand” in the $15.2 million second round as people who have been taking advantage of an eviction moratorium — set to expire at the end of June — realize they’re still liable for payments, even if they can’t be kicked out of their homes.

Kimberly Burns’ landlord told her she can stay through May, though she hasn’t paid her $900 rent since last March. Burns, who works at Sprouts, was rejected when she tried to seek aid previously because her name wasn’t on the lease of the Atlanta house she shared with her daughter.

Her daughter, who was a manager at a Cook Out and paid the rent while Burns covered utilities, left her job and moved in with her father after contracting COVID-19 last year, Burns said. She estimates she’s as much as $20,000 behind.

“I walk the floor all night, I cry continuously,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

If she’s able to get relief, Burns said, “I could start over and just get somewhere that I can afford.”

Landlords like Darion Dunn, managing partner of Atlantica Properties, are able to apply for aid, in addition to the renters doing so themselves. Dunn, whose company owns about 300 single-family homes and apartment units around metro Atlanta, said he’s already done so on behalf of some tenants.

While delinquencies in the industry are normally 3-5%, he said, some companies are seeing a rate three times that. Dunn said it’s bad not just for people who aren’t paying and risk eviction when the moratorium expires. Tenants who are able to pay will likely see their rents rise when it comes time to renew as landlords try to make up lost revenue.

Audrea Rease, the executive director of Star-C, is trying to bridge the gap.

Her group has received money from Cobb County to help keep people in their homes. Rease said she’s seen some “significant balances” from renters looking for help.

“People are just so grateful,” she said. “They’re under so much pressure and stress.”

In Gwinnett County, Commissioner Marlene Fosque said she hopes the programs give residents “an opportunity to breathe a little bit.” Like other jurisdictions, Gwinnett is targeting people who are on the verge of receiving eviction filings, hoping to reach them before they have a black mark on their record. Keeping people housed, she said, “can help change generations.”

Matthew Elder, the director of HomeFirst Gwinnett, says his group has already intervened in 900 evictions. He said with the new round of money, HomeFirst will work even harder to find residents on the brink.

“We’ll meet you where you are in a moment of crisis,” he said. “We need to cross their threshold; they don’t necessarily need to cross ours.”

For renters like Burns and others, getting the money can still be a challenge. Denise Fisher, a caseworker for St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, said there’s a bottleneck when it comes to getting help — sometimes because of requirements that people send lease documents or bank account information that they don’t have or don’t have access to.

It’s clear that the amount of effort and millions in aid still aren’t enough, Heidi Eveleigh said. Eveleigh, program manager for St. Vincent de Paul’s Motel2Home program, said residents in extended stay hotels are largely excluded from help, though they’re among the most marginalized.

Even with millions of dollars available for renters, she said, “It’s kind of a bandaid.”

“We have to start looking at, what is the end game here, what is the solution?” Eveleigh said. “I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to deal with this.”

The U.S. Treasury’s Emergency Rent Assistance program is sending $710.2 million to Georgia. In addition to the state, here are the metro Atlanta governments that received aid:

State of Georgia: $552.3 million

Atlanta: $15.3 million

Cherokee County: $7.8 million

Clayton County: $8.8 million

Cobb County: $22.9 million

DeKalb County: $21.6 million

Fulton County: $18 million

Gwinnett County: $28.2 million

Henry County: $7.1 million

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