Georgia must address unsafe housing crisis now to protect kids

When Georgia Appleseed’s legal team met James, he was 14, in foster care and facing a one-year school suspension. Years before, the state removed James from his family because his parents could not find suitable housing. Our lawyers worked with the school to keep him in class and get him needed behavioral health supports. Our legal team will help James graduate from high school, but he will likely require ongoing, intensive supports to overcome the education delays and behavior challenges caused by homelessness and isolation from loved ones that occurred years before we met him.

R. Michael Waller

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James travels down a well-worn path in Georgia. Tens of thousands of Georgia children experience homelessness or unsafe housing that leads to foster care, school suspension or expulsion, and ultimately, the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Along the way, these experiences and instability cause physical, mental, and behavioral challenges that can be life-long.

The path from desperate housing conditions to the juvenile justice system is widely recognized and understood among legal and social services workers and the low-income families we serve. Georgia Appleseed’s work with James highlights a systemic housing crisis that threatens Georgia’s future workforce and the overall strength of our communities.

This spring, Georgia’s Legislature has a chance to protect thousands of children from dangerous housing and eviction by passing the bipartisan House Bill 404. The bill will create minimum safety standards for rental housing and provide tenants a modest three-day window to make up late rent payments.

Severe housing problems (like lack of plumbing or kitchen facilities) impact at least 582,000 Georgia households, according to our estimate and the United Health Care Foundation and U.S. Census data. That’s 15.2% of Georgia homes (and 21% for Black families) — a higher percentage than Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi.

In addition, eviction regularly threatens these families. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, 18.8% of renting families in Georgia faced eviction each year. After a dip during the pandemic due to a federally mandated moratorium, eviction rates in Atlanta are rising above pre-pandemic numbers, hitting the city’s Black and Brown communities hardest. In Clayton County, landlords filed enough evictions to potentially affect more than 35% of renting households in the past year.

Across the state, dangerous housing conditions and evictions lead to homelessness for tens of thousands of children—over 31,000 public school kids were homeless or in unstable housing during the 2020-2021 school year. Poor housing conditions cause widespread health problems—9.6% of Georgia’s children suffer from asthma, nearly 50% higher than the national average, costing tens of millions in hospital costs each year. And they break up families—one fifth of children in Georgia’s foster care system were removed from their families because of “inadequate housing.”

HB 404 is a potential turning point for Georgia. Most Georgia landlords are responsible business owners and already provide safe housing to their tenants. HB 404 would level the playing field for these landlords and require Georgia’s slumlords to clean up their properties. As currently written, the legislation is a decisive step toward keeping families together and giving our children the stability they need to succeed.

The evidence is irrefutable—safe and stable housing is a crucial determinant of a child’s well-being and prospects. Join Georgia Appleseed and partner organizations fighting to keep Georgia’s children safe. Let’s take a stand for James and the tens of thousands of children like him.

Call your state legislators. Tell them that you support HB 404. Tell that them that Georgia should lead the way in ensuring that every child has a safe place to live, learn and grow.

R. Michael Waller is the executive director at Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a non-partisan nonprofit representing Georgia’s most underrepresented children to keep them in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

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