New federal ban on evictions could have far-reaching impacts in metro Atlanta

Courts in metro Atlanta are still figuring out exactly how the new law will impact cases. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Housing advocates push for more direct assistance for renters

A new federal rule banning evictions for tenants affected by the coronavirus could help many metro Atlanta renters, lawyers and housing advocates said, though some fear it does not go far enough.

Local judges, meanwhile, are still working to make sense of the new order and how it will affect thousands of landlord-tenant cases across the region. Cobb County has already suspended some eviction hearings as officials review the guidelines.

“We’ll see. We’re all still working through it,” Cassandra Kirk, Fulton County’s chief Magistrate judge, said Wednesday morning during a discussion hosted by the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.

The new order, announced Tuesday, was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under its public health powers, stating that an eviction moratorium could help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rules cover tenants facing eviction due to non-payment of rent through the end of the year.

ExploreTrump directs CDC to ban coronavirus-related evictions through 2020

To qualify for the protections, renters must provide a declaration that they:

  • Have lost “substantial” income during the pandemic;
  • Expect to make no more than $99,000 in 2020 or qualified to receive a stimulus check;
  • Are making their “best efforts” to make partial rent payments and get government assistance;
  • And that an eviction would force them into homelessness.

According to the CDC’s agency order, criminal penalties could be imposed on landlords who violate the ban.

“It should have the effect of really stopping most of the evictions that we anticipated seeing,” said Charles Bliss, the director of advocacy for Atlanta Legal Aid Society, adding that renters can still be evicted for reasons other than not paying their rent.

When the moratorium expires, those protected under the guidelines will still have to make up rental payments they missed, the CDC said.

“If people are still getting their rent piled up ... then you’re looking at evictions that are happening in January and February,” said Monica DeLancy, a tenants’ rights advocate in Cobb County. “That’s my concern, that’s the concern for some of the families I’ve been talking to.”

Michael Lucas with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation said during the forum that eviction moratoriums “really buy us time to get this right.” He and other housing advocates called for more direct housing assistance for renters, because the CDC’s new order does not come with additional federal funds to help people stay in their homes.

“The flood is just building up stronger behind the dam,” Lucas said. “The courts will have an even more unimaginable tsunami coming in 2021.”

The Atlanta Apartment Association is also pushing for more direct rental relief for tenants. Otherwise, some landlords could unfairly face financial hardship, said Stephen Davis, the director of government affairs for the association.

“If you happen to have a property that is experiencing a large amount of tenants not paying their rent, then you yourself are in a financial burden,” Davis said.

The Fulton County Magistrate Court is typically considered the busiest eviction court in the state. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Doug Bibby, the president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, said the organization is disappointed that no new federal funding was tied to the order.

“An eviction moratorium will ultimately harm the very people it aims to help by making it impossible for housing providers, particularly small owners, to meet their financial obligations and continue to provide shelter to their residents,” Bibby said in a statement.

Davis mentioned the city of Atlanta’s new $22 million rental relief program, which will be administered by United Way of Greater Atlanta, as an example of what local governments can do to help residents. The money will ensure more than 6,700 city residents who have lost income due to the pandemic can receive assistance with past due rent, utility or security deposits up to a household limit of $3,000.

Several area counties have also launched their own programs to provide rent relief to people in need.

ExploreEviction hearings quietly resuming across metro Atlanta

Thousands of evictions have been filed in metro Atlanta since the pandemic began, though most cases have sat idle since courts shut down and put eviction hearings on hold. Last month, courts in metro Atlanta began resuming some eviction cases, beginning with those filed before the pandemic.

Last week alone, over 1,500 evictions were filed across Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties, according to a new tracker created by researchers at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Tech and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It was the busiest week for filings since mid-March, when the pandemic began.

It’s still unclear exactly how local courts will handle the new federal order, and how it will affect pending cases, though Bliss said nothing in the order specifically excludes pending cases from being eligible.

Kirk said she plans to discuss the order with a council of other Georgia magistrate judges to come up with a plan.

“We have until Friday,” she said, which is when the order is expected to go into effect.

In the meantime, Cobb County’s Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan Murphy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his court has temporarily put a hold on eviction hearings that concern non-payment of rent, pending a “thorough review” of the 37-page CDC document.

“As the order requires tenants to keep paying rent and actively seek rental assistance, we will continue to find ways to bring landlords, tenants, and non-profits together to facilitate settlements that will keep tenants in their homes and see that landlords are paid,” Murphy said Wednesday.

The moratorium is broader than an earlier eviction ban passed by Congress in March as part of a massive economic rescue package, which only applied to federally financed rental units and recently expired.

THE STORY SO FAR:

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, courts across metro Atlanta shut down in the midst of a statewide judicial emergency. Since mid-March, landlords have still been able to file for eviction against tenants, though eviction hearings were largely put on hold. In August, most courts in metro resumed hearings, beginning with cases that were pending before the pandemic. The recent federal order, released Tuesday, could affect thousands of cases across the region, advocates said.