Slow start for Atlanta’s rent relief program surprises some

When the city of Atlanta announced it was launching a $22 million emergency rental relief program, it had a goal of helping 6,700 families struggling to pay their rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Two months into the initiative, only a fraction of that total have received assistance.

According to United Way of Greater Atlanta, which is administering the funds on behalf of the city, 800 people have received rent relief through the program, which is paid for through federal CARES Act funds.

“We were expecting a huge influx of applications,” said Protip Biswas, who heads up homelessness prevention efforts at United Way Atlanta. “What’s been surprising is, we are not overwhelmed with applications.”

Paying rent has been a challenge for many low-income tenants during the pandemic as many have lost jobs or income due to business cutbacks. Thousands of evictions for nonpayment have been filed in metro Atlanta, though a federal moratorium on evictions is temporarily keeping many of those cases from moving forward. In a statement announcing the rent relief program, United Way Atlanta President and CEO Milton Little said as many as 16,000 households in the city make under $50,000 and are at risk of layoffs due to the pandemic.

Nearly 8,000 people have applied for help through the city’s relief program, Biswas said. But he estimated about half do not live in the city of Atlanta, so they aren’t eligible.

For the folks who do live in the city, United Way connects them with case workers from a partner agency, which works to confirm they are eligible for the funds and helps them submit the required documentation.

The requirements are steep. Applicants must make less than 60% of the area median income —about $50,000 annual for a family of four — and submit proof of income for each adult in the home, proof of residence and a utility bill or rent statement. Applicants also must show proof of an “extenuating circumstance” that has caused a loss of income like a furlough notice or check stubs showing reduced work hours.

United Way can then directly pay the landlord to cover the tenant’s rent. Right now, residents receive up to $3,000 in aid. The deadline for the CARES money to be spent is the end of the year, Biswas said.

Biswas said about 1,000 to 1,200 families have been assigned a case manager and are in the documentation process. But “some of those people might not follow up” or be able to easily to produce the required forms, he said, adding that some of the steps are legal mandates for how the federal relief funds can be used.

“There are certain requirements that we have to meet, but we’re trying to be flexible,” Biswas said, adding that they have had discussions with the city about possibly loosening some of the parameters. “We’re learning as we go.”

Generally, housing experts and advocates say rental relief programs should be easy to apply for and access. Brian Goldstone, a local writer and housing activist, said on Twitter that data showing low assistance rates in Atlanta’s program so far are “incredibly disturbing."

Biswas urged Atlanta families who need help to apply as early as possible. The federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year, and housing advocates are concerned that a wave of tenants who fell behind on their rent could suddenly be evicted from their homes in early 2021. The moratorium has suspended evictions for nonpayment of rent but does not forgive rent, so many renters could owe thousands in back rent once evictions are restarted by the courts.

“I’m worried about the scale of this,” Biswas said. “If everyone took advantage of this program right now and paid of some of their past dues, then we’re in a much better situation.”

United Way also plans to step up its marketing and outreach efforts so more people know about the relief program.

To apply for assistance through United Way: