Heather Somerstein lost her job earlier in the pandemic and fell behind on rent. Before long, she was facing imminent eviction from her Smyrna apartment.
“I had never been evicted or been late on my rent,” she said. “It scared me in a way I had never been scared before.”
The Cobb County woman filed for rental assistance offered through federal pandemic relief programs. And she consulted with an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney, who persuaded the landlord to delay eviction.
It took four months, but Somerstein’s application for assistance was finally approved in late November. Now, the landlord is guaranteed payment through January, when a new consulting job in marketing should provide Somerstein with enough income to get back on track.
Buying time for tenants to get back on track is exactly what lawmakers had in mind when Congress authorized billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance.
A months-long wait is not.
An estimated 30,000 tenants in Georgia are still waiting for applications to be processed. As of late November, less than 15% of the $989 million allotted to Georgia had been distributed, a pace that’s been criticized by tenant advocates and housing experts.
Georgia — which delegates rental assistance distribution to nine counties, two cities and the Department of Community Affairs — lags behind 38 states and the District of Columbia in the amount of rental assistance dollars disbursed, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Meanwhile, the number of evictions has been increasing.
Until late August, a federal moratorium kept evictions in check. While that ban was in effect, monthly evictions in the five core counties of metro Atlanta averaged about 7,500 — a little more than half the pre-pandemic level. In the three months since the moratorium ended, evictions have averaged about 10,000 a month, according to data provided by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
In terms of sheer numbers, Fulton has had the most filings, nearly 10,000 in the past three months.
But DeKalb County saw the steepest rise in eviction filings. In September, there were 2,215 filings, up 31% from August, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. There were 2,700 filings in October, a 59% increase from August. In holiday-shortened November, there were still 2,126 filings.
The number of evictions has not approached the epic proportions that many affordable housing advocates feared. In fact, filings are still below pre-pandemic levels.
But things could get worse soon.
Unless Georgia gets better at distributing payments, the state might lose some of the rental assistance money allotted. Up to $120 million of the remaining funds could be redistributed to more efficient states, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
It hasn’t been as simple as sending out checks, said Daphne Walker, division director for housing assistance at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Programs had to be assembled, staff trained, outreach done and applicants vetted, Walker said last week, speaking to the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.
“We pay money back if we get something wrong,” Walker said. “We have to be accurate, and we have to be reliable.”
But Michael Waller, chief executive of the nonprofit Georgia Appleseed, a policy advocacy group, said Georgia needs to act with more urgency.
“This needs to be more of a priority at the highest levels of state government,” he said. “It would be a tremendous loss for Georgia and for landlords if this money goes back to the federal government.”
Georgia officials have filed plans with the Treasury Department to ramp up payments. As part of that vow, the state will do more marketing to tell renters what’s available and will transfer $74 million to local programs that are expected to process payments quickly.
That can’t happen soon enough, said Denise Fisher, a board member for Society of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, a nonprofit working with low-income households.
“We are seeing some people who get evicted while they are waiting for the rental assistance money,” said Fisher.
In Cobb County, officials make sure that both tenants and landlords hear about rental assistance when they come to court for eviction hearings, said Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan Murphy.
In 2019, there were 21,830 eviction filings in Cobb, followed by 10,814 last year. So far this year, there have been about 13,200, according to Murphy.
“There has not been the overwhelming crush of eviction cases that we anticipated,” he said. “And we think that was because rental assistance is working.”
The federal government has given out two rounds of rental assistance, and DeKalb County has spent all $21.6 million from the first round, said Javoyne Hicks, state and magistrate clerk of court. “The biggest challenge we’ve had is getting people to submit all the required documents. Without that, we can’t move forward,” she said.
Yet rental assistance has limits. It’s meant as a bridge to get a tenant over a rough patch. It cannot provide a tenant more income.
“A lot of our clients work in day care or in restaurants, things that have not completely come back. So there is still a lot of COVID-related hardship,” said Donna Ross, who works with Legal Aid in Cobb County. “Evictions are something we see every day. It has steadily gone up.”
The federal assistance also can’t reshape a market in which rents are rapidly rising.
Valeria Latimore has seen rent on her Decatur house increase by more than $100 a month since the pandemic started. Utility fees are up, too. With only a Social Security check as income, she’s taken loans from family members. Still, she fell short and couldn’t pay rent in July.
Legal Aid helped stop her eviction, and her landlord accepted rental assistance money for her missed payments. She’s paid up through January.
After that, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
“I can’t borrow anymore,” she said. “I have got to move.”
Increase in eviction filings since August
Source: Atlanta Regional Commission
Monthly average of eviction filings, metro Atlanta’s five core counties
CARES Act moratorium, April-July 2020: 1,612
CDC moratorium, Sept. 2020-August 2021: 7,499
September 2021: 10,003
October 2021: 10,318
November 2021: 9,274
November 2021, eviction filings by county
Source: Atlanta Regional Commission
Rental assistance from federal government
Total to Georgia: $989 million
Money disbursed: $134 million
Source: Department of Community Affairs
State ranking by share of assistance paid out
1. New Jersey: 100%
2. New York: 100%
3. California: 100%
4. District of Columbia: 99%
5. Illinois: 91%
6. Virginia: 91%
7. North Carolina: 90%
8. Texas: 88%
9. Minnesota: 73%
10. Alaska: 69%
40. Georgia: 14%
Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury
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Credit: Henry County Sheriff's Office