Court delays are damaging affordability, safety of apartments

Backlog in evictions is hurting renters, property owners and public safety.

Professional apartment owners and managers are extremely sensitive to both the emotional and financial impact of an eviction. While a necessary part of the rental housing business, eviction is utilized by professional owners and managers only as a last resort when all efforts have been exhausted to reach an agreement with the resident. A few bad actors aside, Atlanta’s housing providers have been exceedingly patient and flexible over the past three years while some residents have failed to pay rent, apply for assistance, or engaged in criminal activity for months or even years at a time.

In 2019, an eviction in Atlanta took an average of 60 days from the first missed payment to the Fulton County Marshal actually knocking on the door. Today, this process takes more than a year. There are currently over 19,000 cases backlogged in the Fulton County courts and marshal’s office, more than half of which are over six months old, according to data from the Fulton Magistrate Court.

At the onset of the pandemic, courts rightfully shuttered across the nation to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone. In 2021, those same courts and communities gradually resumed normal operations – seemingly everywhere except in metro Atlanta.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The backlog is not ending with the courts. Once a ruling is issued by the court, all evictions in Georgia must be supervised by a marshal or sheriff. Metro Atlanta marshals have also been unable to keep up with the accumulation of cases. Today, there are a combined 4,500 cases that have made their way through the courts in Fulton and DeKalb that are stalled in the marshal’s office, according to the Magistrate Court and DeKalb County Marshal, adding an additional four or more months to the process.

Our multifamily members who own properties across the U.S. report that no other markets nationwide are experiencing the incredible delays that are happening here and, as a result, local rental property owners and their paying residents are paying the price.

A conservative estimate based on Magistrate Court and rental data of the total lost rent due to these delays in Fulton County alone comes to over $265 million. In response, apartment communities are tightening application standards for income and credit and increasing security deposit amounts to protect against the risk of the extended and nearly impossible eviction process. Larger property owners and management companies are struggling to weather the delay, passing some of the loss on to residents in annual rent increases. Smaller operators, local owners and naturally occurring affordable housing providers simply cannot. They are being forced to sell their properties to larger, out-of-state investment companies or face bankruptcy.

In every scenario, the price of rental housing goes up and the goal of preserving Atlanta’s unsubsidized affordable housing stock slips further away.

That’s not the only way Atlanta’s renters are paying for these delays. Evictions due to criminal activity or safety concerns require the same extended legal process. There is currently no process to expedite or prioritize these cases at the Magistrate Court or marshal’s department, which allows for greater deterioration of public safety in the communities where criminal violators are allowed to maintain illegal residence.

A member recently shared a story from the perspective of a resident, who has lived in her modest but comfortable apartment near Lindbergh for the past four years. Her neighbors on both sides have had evictions pending since spring of last year. One no longer lives in the unit (or pays rent) but has listed it on Airbnb and loud parties are held on a regular basis, interrupting her and her child’s sleep. On the other side, a resident (who also stopped paying rent in February 2022) has a constant flow of visitors, regular smell of drugs and noise at all hours of the day and night, to the point she fears for her safety. The property manager, who is also wary of confronting the potentially violent occupants, has begged law enforcement to help remove the criminal element from the property or move the pending evictions forward but is told “there is nothing they can do.”

The frustrated resident’s rent went up when she renewed her lease last fall. What she didn’t know was that 18 percent of the property is delinquent, threatening the financial viability of the community.

On the other side of town, a local Atlantan who owns rental properties and makes every effort to work with his residents and keep his rents as affordable as possible, is concerned for the sustainability of his business and Atlanta’s housing market at large. The current backlog, coupled with his willingness to go above and beyond to help his residents, has left him with some occupied units where the resident has not paid rent for over two years. As has become common practice in Atlanta, he has offered delinquent residents $5,000 or more in cash to help them move and find new housing, but they have chosen to stay, as they know they will not be evicted in the current legal climate.

This unacceptable scenario is now entering its third year and isn’t sustainable for any size property owner. Action is needed now.

Without officials and constituents asking questions and taking action to demand a return to normal operating procedures, the problem and consequential hits to the safety and affordability of rental housing will only continue to escalate.

Jim Fowler is president of the Atlanta Apartment Association, which represents over 1,200 member companies consisting of 340 companies managing 400,000-plus apartment homes and over 800 businesses that provide products and services to the industry.

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT