Georgia tenants worry eviction after the moratorium ends

Thousands of Georgians who struggled before the pandemic are now facing homelessness with the end of the eviction moratorium. Landlords, meanwhile, worry about making mortgage payments as rental assistance programs strive to stay ahead of evictions.

The respite had been extended to October 3, but the US Supreme Court ruling last week lifted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s second statewide moratorium. The action spread through the community of tenants, landlords, judges and organizations trying to help with the housing crisis.

“It is imperative that we do not have mass evictions, and there are already a lot of people who somehow slip through the cracks,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Relief Program offers financial relief to tenants affected by the COVID-19 crisis, but tenants and activists say the process is not fast enough to keep up with the pace of evictions in Georgia.

The moratorium prohibited landlords from terminating tenants for non-payment of rent if they presented their landlord with a declaration form that complies with guidelines set by the CDC, but did not prevent the eviction proceeding from proceeding without the declaration.

The US Census Household Pulse poll shows that approximately 100,000 Georgians are among the 4.6 million Americans facing eviction or foreclosure within the next two months.

Usually there are only about 900,000 evictions nationwide in a typical year, Dunn said.

The U.S. Treasury Department has allocated Georgia $ 552 million in rental aid, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Households can receive up to 15 months earlier rental support and three months future support without a dollar cap under the state program, Deputy Commissioner Tonya Curry said.

Counties and cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants received the majority of the funds that came directly from the state treasury and launched their own rental subsidy programs, while the other jurisdictions were covered by the state program. Millions are wasted and critics say the bureaucratic process is blocking distribution.

Legal proceedings are quick

Georgia’s rental assistance programs simply cannot keep up with the pace the law requires courts to go through the eviction process, said Brendan Murphy, chief magistrate judge of Cobb County.

“If a tenant is served with an eviction notice, they must submit a response within seven days,” he said. “And the court has to hold a hearing within 14 days of that. So that’s 21 days from delivery of an eviction notice against a tenant. Even the fastest rental assistance program in the world will not be able to catch up with 21 days. ”

Cobb County, one of the counties outside of the Community Affairs program, has successfully incorporated on-site mediation to help slow the legal process and has one of its five assistance providers to speak to landlords and tenants at each hearing. In addition, Murphy said it has received additional funding from nonprofits.

The neighboring Cherokee County also has its own program. But it only has one provider, MUST Ministries, to distribute government funds. Many tenants tried unsuccessfully to apply for assistance through the state program because they did not know the county’s programs were different, deputy judge Gregory Douds said.

“If they applied on this website it would just float and they had to start over by contacting MUST Ministries,” said Douds. “They thought they were in the program, but they weren’t.”

The application proves to be challenging

DeKalb County’s landlady, Yvonne Andall, said that while watching the news, she found out about government aid and had no direct communication from the county. She worked throughout the pandemic to create payment plans with her tenants, but none of them have yet taken advantage of the aid program.

“I told tenants about it, but as for me, just a landlord and a taxpayer, I never got anything,” Andall said. “Everyone in DeKalb County gets a water bill. Why is the note not included in the water bill or attached to the tax bills? Why didn’t you put a little flyer in there? ”

Andall said she and many other landlords had used their financial reserves to keep afloat as tenants struggled to pay the rent.

For those who depend on rent for mortgage and insurance payments, landlords have been forced to choose between the monthly payments they have to forego, according to Andall.

“That creates a crisis,” she says. “You have to say, what am I not paying this month? If we don’t pay the mortgage, that’s an item lock. If you fail to pay the tax, a lien begins. It’s a snowball effect. ”

Andall said the process needs to be a lot simpler if rental support financing is to help landlords. While landlords struggle financially, Andall said tenants are struggling to fill out the assistance application due to problems with legal jargon and income verification.

Sam Gilman, a researcher and co-founder of the COVID-19 Evacuation Defense Project in Colorado, said it was especially difficult for tenants fearful for their families to wade through the legal jargon for requests for assistance. Gilman also pointed out that it can be difficult for renters to access verification documents quickly enough to complete their application before their eviction hearing.

“These programs were designed for a world where a lot of middle-class people live, where the documents are in a filing cabinet or in a folder in an email account, but not everyone lives that way,” Gilman said.

Tenants were already at risk

These deepening difficulties are forcing Georgia’s most vulnerable communities to suffer, said Brian Goldstone, a journalist and cultural anthropologist, who writes on housing and homelessness.

“The people most at risk of losing their homes right now were in many cases a paycheck or two away from eviction and helplessness before the pandemic began,” Goldstone said.

Goldstone pointed out that homelessness and housing insecurity were an issue in Georgia prior to the COVID-19 crisis and went largely unnoticed by most Georgians. The race between government funds and evictions only exposes the problem more clearly, and Goldstone believes this could lead to a tidal wave of mass evictions.

“At the speed with which we are distributing this money, of course with the landlords who even refuse to take the money, judges who refuse to give people the protection they legally have, you know all of that together – even if the fictional tidal wave does not occur, we will still return to a pre-pandemic housing epidemic in Georgia and across the country, ”he said.

Dunn agreed that the U.S. rental market was unhealthy prior to the pandemic and fears that after the moratorium is lifted, eviction records will struggle for many tenants to find an apartment.

He said he hoped the U.S. would enact laws to protect tenants evicted for non-payment during the COVID-19 crisis, citing the Philadelphia Renter’s Access Act, which prohibits landlords from submitting a rental application solely on the basis of one to refuse prior eviction. and requires that they explain to the renter why they were refused and give them the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Communication is important

Given the speed of the law and delayed access to money, Murphy said, vendors, landlords and tenants need to establish strong communication practices in hopes of slowing the legal process while rental assistance is being distributed.

Tenants say they are struggling to get providers to call back their calls. At a June Cobb County Commission meeting, tenant Denise Stroman moved to extend the moratorium for the remainder of the year because help was difficult to come by.

“I’m grateful for the temporary support like Star-C and Cobb Home Savers,” she said. “It’s just that we have trouble getting information back when you ask for help. We send e-mails and calls, but no callbacks. ”

Community representative and founder of We Thrive in Riverside, Monica Delancy, urged her network to speak to landlords and property managers before eviction notices are delivered.

“That’s what my organization does,” she said. “Communication, making contact and showing people how to speak for themselves and not be afraid. Create partnerships with your landlords, with your property managers – not you here and us here. We are the same because we live here. ”

With the lifting of the moratorium, rent subsidies are now the main line of defense against mass displacement in Georgia.

Gilman of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project said any eviction that occurs when money is provided to keep people in their homes is ruthless. He is concerned about the health of the families affected.

“Every eviction is a tragedy, is a heartache and has really many budgetary consequences,” he said. It affects the mental and physical health of everyone in the household. ”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Fresh Take Georgia.