When emergency surgery was not performed at medical clinics in the Chatham County area during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dottie Carswell lost her job as a medical programmer in July 2020.

Like millions of other Americans who once had a steady job, she suddenly became worried about paying her upcoming bills. When she needed help, she called a group she had previously donated to: United Way of the Coastal Empire, a nonprofit that operates in Chatham and the surrounding counties.

“It was like, OK, I need help,” Carswell said. United Way provided money for their utility bills and a few mortgage payments.

Carswell found a new job last December, but there are still more than 10,000 households in Chatham County, according to the National Equity Atlas, a database run by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California Equity Research Institute using data from the US Census Bureau .

On Saturday, the federal evictions moratorium ended, meaning the 286 eviction cases filed in Chatham County’s courts can begin processing. With the state safety nets phased out, Shaina Thompson, an eviction prevention attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program, says the wave will grow into a “tsunami of evictions.”

A dead moratorium

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control put in place a moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent in September 2020 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded homeless shelters and residential settings.

The mandate meant that as long as the landlord certified that they had a certain income, the landlord could not pay rent and would become homeless if they were evicted, their landlord could not evict them. The order was renewed several times, but it expired on July 31st.

To help landlords remain solvent during this time, the federal government also approved hundreds of millions of dollars in rental and utility grants distributed in Georgia by community organizations.

United Way and the Economic Opportunity Authority of Savannah-Chatham County (EOA) met this need locally for people like Carswell. The groups were selected based on their established community relationships to distribute federal aid.

United Way’s vice president of Direct Services, Jennifer Darsey, says the coastal region is home to around 125,000 vulnerable families, people who work but have limited incomes. The pandemic exacerbated their fragile financial situation.

“There are literally so many people trying to make ends meet that they just don’t make enough money,” said Darsey. “This one crisis is the difference between stable and no longer stable.”

Before March 2020, United Way mainly acted as a recommendation channel for people with housing insecurity. Then, when the pandemic broke out, the group’s telephone hotline for help rose from around 150 calls a week to over 1,000.

First, the organization distributed $ 675,000 from the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund – money raised from community donations. It then received $ 3.2 million from the City of Savannah and $ 800,000 from Chatham County from federal CARES law, and $ 1.9 million specifically for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

“The goal was really to try and help families in the safety net before an eviction was issued,” said Darsey. United Way has prevented the eviction of 1,712 people, according to Darsey, and there is still $ 1.1 million in ERA funding available. Darsey emphasized that United Way is there for many services to those in need, not just rentals.

The EOA also received $ 2 million for the Emergency Lease Relief Program, which allowed it to pay for rent and utilities including internet service. At a time after the effects of the pandemic began to devastate the economy and people’s health, EOA’s system was “overloaded with people,” said Mona Clark, a homebuyer education coordinator for the group. Federal regulations mean that rental support programs work directly with landlords to raise funds for rent and utilities.

A vicious circle

According to Terry Tolbert, director of EOA, most of the people who come to the EOA and United Way for help are women, especially single women. Single-income households are less financially stable than double-income households.

Many fear that the displacement crisis of the pandemic will exacerbate poverty cycles. Mental health problems can worsen during periods of stress, and children who cannot attend school in person can be stunted in their education, according to a study released this April.

Economically vulnerable people have short- and long-term consequences for their creditworthiness. Evictions affect their loan records and make it difficult to find a new home.

“When you have that negative note against you, it will be exponentially more difficult for individuals to find an apartment,” said Darsey. “It will be a national problem.”

Double sided coin

The looming eviction crisis is also affecting property owners, landlords, their mortgages and creditworthiness. Though you own an asset, you still have to pay bills, including property taxes. “There’s a duality in what’s going on,” said Darsey.

Landlords had to inform their tenants about the eviction moratorium. In order not to be thrown out of their rental properties, tenants were required to sign a CDC form stating that they met certain income requirements. The form certifies that tenants have done their best to pay the rent and are at risk of becoming homeless if they vacate the property.

That didn’t stop the landlords from filing eviction lawsuits. According to Bill Broker of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit, evictions were made during the pandemic for other reasons, such as: And some landlords still filed eviction suits, which were suspended because of the moratorium because it was about non-payment of rent due to the pandemic.

There were 286 such cases on the Chatham County District Court file as of July 26, according to Clerk Tracie Grove Macke. That means these cases will continue after July 31st.

Keith Berry, attorney, represents landlords primarily in expropriation cases. With the moratorium – and the pandemic as a whole – turning the way many landlords and renters work upside down, he said his customers are looking forward to the order expiry to return to a normal payment cycle.

Maintaining property and paying mortgage payments and property taxes requires money and can be difficult for landlords without rent payments, according to Berry.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” said Berry. “Such a thing is the law of unintended consequences.”

What now?

What’s next for families at risk and stressed out landlords?

Former Savannah City manager Michael Brown said the city has no power to issue a local eviction ban.

Still, there are millions of dollars in federal aid available to renters and homeowners who are behind on their mortgages, which are unaffected by the July 31 deadline.

Attorneys with the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit that provides free legal advice to people on low incomes, work with those involved in eviction cases.

Shaina Thompson, an eviction prevention attorney at GLSP, said landlords still need to give tenants 30 days notice before actually evicting them. Thompson said proving that you reached out to resources to cover unpaid rent can also help with a lawsuit.

Those in need of financial help should call United Way and EOA. “There’s definitely rental support money,” Thompson said. “People definitely, definitely have to reach for it.”