It’s been easy for Jenna Buck to lose track of time lately.
Over the past few weeks, she’s been furloughed without pay, her husband laid off and her children sent home as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across Georgia. The days are a blur of cooking and home schooling her 12- and 6-year old children and reminding herself, each time she coughs or sneezes, that her seasonal allergies are normal.
But the first of the month looms larger than ever.
“I am so thankful that my family is healthy, but the stress level right now is insane,” said Buck, who rents a three-bedroom house in Suwanee for $1,450 a month. “We have no money coming in.”
For many, paying rent was a struggle even before the novel coronavirus began devastating the economy. An estimated 37% of households in the state are renter-occupied, and the average rent in metro Atlanta has surged over the past decade, far outpacing wage growth.
Then, last week, the country saw a record number of jobless claims, including in Georgia. Many more are unable to file for unemployment but have nevertheless seen their hours cut and lost income. Now, housing advocates warn of an unprecedented crisis.
Even with eviction hearings on hold in much of the state, the patchwork of policies is confusing to tenants. And those who are temporarily saved from eviction will likely still be out of work and facing even bigger bills for back rent, utilities and other expenses when the emergency ends.
A $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed into law last week could provide some relief by bolstering unemployment benefits and providing direct cash payments of up to $1,200 for most adults — or $2,400 for married couples filing jointly — plus $500 per child.
But those checks aren’t expected to reach people’s bank accounts for several weeks at the earliest, and will not go far, with median rents for two bedroom units ranging from $1,100 to $1,800 across the metro area.
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Some leasing companies have sent messages to tenants offering some type of leniency to those who can prove they have lost income due to the virus, while others have confirmed they expect payment in full.
Buck was able to strike a deal with her landlord to pay half the rent now and half in two weeks. By then, she hopes either her unemployment payments or her stimulus check will come through.
It’s a situation in which she never thought she’d find herself. As a project manager for a global technology company with extensive work in China, she watched the crisis unfold in Asia, but never thought it would touch her and her family.
“My co-workers and I said to each other, ‘Could you imagine this happening in America? This could never happen in America,’ and three weeks later, here we are,” she said. “It’s really, really shocking to me how many people have lost their jobs so quickly.”
Others have seen their hours severely reduced.
Sonja, who rents a two bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month in Cobb County and works at a big-box store, said she was made part time last week, despite the retailer announcing a hiring spree. She asked that her last name and the name of her employer be withheld for fear of retaliation.
“I’m making a lot less money working than I would have had they just let me go and let me collect unemployment,” she said. “I’m having to work twice as hard to get half as far as somebody that’s laid off.” With the reduction in hours her take-home pay has dropped about half, she said.
Sonja worries about her health. But most of all, she fears for her daughter, 17, a top student whose college prep has been derailed by the pandemic. Without a computer at home, the girl is having to do her homework on a cellphone, and she expects the SATs she signed up for in June to be canceled.
“Anxiety is really high in me and my daughter,” Sonja said. “She’s old enough to know what’s going on.”
Sonja said she reached out to her landlord to see if they could work something out, but has not heard back. She is hoping to pay in installments rather than getting hit with a huge bill later.
That scenario is exactly what concerns Ayanna Jones-Lightsy, co-director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Safe and Stable Homes Project.
Jones-Lightsy praised the Georgia Supreme Court for announcing a 30-day statewide judicial emergency on March 14 that resulted in many lower courts suspending eviction proceedings. But the order has been interpreted differently by each jurisdiction, and some landlords have hired private processors to serve notices to tenants who may not understand their legal rights, she said.
“There needs to be more plans in place for how we’re going to assist renters and landlords, because landlords need to pay their mortgages,” she said. “We need to address that issue, and we need to address it now before we are overwhelmed by it.”
Some renters have already been displaced by the pandemic.
Stacey Hedrick works as a cook at a restaurant inside the airport earning about $12.20 an hour, but her hours have been cut in half. On top of that, the elderly couple she was renting a basement apartment from asked her to leave because they feared she could catch the virus at the world’s busiest airport and spread it to them.
Now, Hedrick is paying $300 a week at an extended-stay hotel in Jonesboro with her two adult daughters, both of whom have been laid off from airport jobs. She has little faith in the government's efforts, including the stimulus package that included $61 billion for airlines and the aviation industry.
“They bailed out the big companies, and they don’t care about the hourly workers,” she said. “People should really be worried about the hourly people because we’re about to be real bad off.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC