End of federal eviction ban looms again as Georgians struggle to secure rent aid

By: - August 26, 2021 1:00 am

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider the legality of the Biden administration’s eviction moratorium intended to protect renters vulnerable to homelessness during the pandemic. Stephen Zenner/Getty Images

A nationwide eviction moratorium is again hanging on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling as the Biden administration requests that the latest ban remain in place until at least early October because the COVID-19 delta variant has run rampant in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, many Georgia renters are dreading another first-of-the-month deadline ahead of Labor Day weekend. And city and state officials are still working to speed up the delivery of more than $500 million in federal aid meant to help renters pay their landlords and keep people off the streets as COVID-19 spreads in communities across Georgia. 

The moratorium faces long odds before the Supreme Court after a new, narrower restriction on evictions was implemented on Aug. 3, several days after the original ban expired. The new order, White House officials say, gives state and local governments more time to process and distribute billions of dollars in federal pandemic rental assistance to tide over renters most at risk of experiencing homelessness and help their landlords regain income streams. 

The U.S. Department of Justice Monday asked the Supreme Court to rule against a group of realtors who argue that the latest eviction ban ordered by Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is illegal.

In its brief, the justice department cited the CDC that “the increase in cases brought about by the delta variant confirms that there will continue to be a significant number of residential evictions contributing to its spread.”

The first moratorium applied to renters nationally, while the one ordered Aug. 3 applies to communities with a high rate of COVID-19 spread, which covers all of Georgia.

With a Supreme Court decision looming, the pace of federal relief for delinquent rent in Georgia’s state program struggles with the same delivery problems as when the first ban ended several weeks ago.

At the start of this week, the state Department of Community Affairs-administered Georgia Rental Assistance Program had dispersed $18.4 million to 3,114 tenants and landlords, representing 3.3% of the $552 million of available federal emergency assistance.

By comparison at roughly the same pace, the state distributed $15.3 million to approved applicants mostly outside metro Atlanta counties from March until late July.

The state agency has about 150 staffers who have worked to comb through 13,000 renters’ applications filed since March and is asking the tenants to urge their landlords to also turn in documents for the program.

Renters admitted to the state program can now receive up to 18 months worth of rent and utilities payments, while households that receive federal subsidies, such as the household choice voucher, can also qualify.  

“The Georgia Department of Community Affairs staff is working as efficiently as possible to process applications,” the department said in a statement. “Since March, we’ve been able to help tenants and landlords across the state bring past due rent and utility payments current with rental assistance. The speed at which funds are administered has increased and we expect this to continue as we have implemented updates to the online portal to streamline the process and experience for applicants.”

Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta and the 10 counties surrounding it, Chatham, and Augusta-Richmond, operate their own rental and utility assistance programs after receiving $158 million directly from the federal government. 

The number of Columbus renters reaching out to St. Anne Community Outreach has tripled since Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency. St. Anne Outreach Director Katie Byers said that those seeking financial assistance are more likely to be at least six months behind on rent now than a month or two ago before COVID-19.

“We are really putting a lot of effort into figuring out how to get these applications processed faster and making it really clear why they're eligible. But for people who are applying on their own, who just fill out the application and upload the documents on their own, I think it’s hard.”

– Susan Reif, director of eviction prevention program for Georgia Legal Services Program

With donations and CARES Act money that the Columbus government allocated for rent assistance, the small social services organization has delivered $280,000 to tenants since the onset of the pandemic.

With the state’s new rental program, St. Anne’s has helped people push 46 applications through what can be a cumbersome application process. Just 14 of those applications generated money, but slow response times at the state level have left the majority still pending, including some yet to be processed filed back in March and April.

“To be left kind of in the dark has been a very frustrating experience, both for the landlords and the tenants who are just scared to death about what’s going to happen the next time things go to expire,” Byers said.

Kathy Gramling, left, with St. Anne Community Outreach in Columbus. helps a client navigate an application for the Georgia Rental Assistance Program.
Katie Byers/ St. Anne Outreach

Susan Reif, eviction program director for Georgia Legal Services Program, said that while processing time is increasing, the demand for the program is also growing.

The nonprofit organization works with the Department of Community Affairs to process applications. It’s a large workload for the lawyers who are each handling more than 100 cases these days. 

The process is often stalled by a landlord refusing to participate, says Reif.

“We are really putting a lot of effort into figuring out how to get these applications processed faster and making it really clear why they’re eligible,” she said. “But for people who are applying on their own, who just fill out the application and upload the documents on their own, I think it’s hard.”

In DeKalb County, the superior court judge has the authority to extend a local moratorium for two additional 30-day periods that run beyond her initial August order issued just as the first CDC eviction ban expired, according to a county spokesman.

So far, DeKalb has distributed $4.7 million to 1,009 applicants as it continues the local program revamped several weeks so that the money would get out more quickly with a higher cap on how much each household could receive. 

State and local governments have spent $5.1 billion of a first round of $25 billion in national rental relief. The disbursements levels continue to rise, with $1.7 billion in July marking a 15 percent increase from June, according to the U.S. Treasury Department .

Still, with $46 billion allocated by Congress in two stages, the amount of emergency relief given out so far only accounts for 11% of that overall amount.

By the end of July, at least $60 million of Georgia’s state and local funds had been spent.

However, programs that don’t disburse the funds fast enough after September run the risk of those funds being diverted to other communities, the Treasury Department news release said. 

Courts eviction cases continue

Despite the federal eviction moratorium, not all displacements could be stopped since the tenants still had to provide a written declaration outlining their pandemic-related financial hardships and come to an agreement with the landlord.

Thousands of evictions were handled by Georgia’s courts since the pandemic hit. But significantly fewer property owners brought complaints and many more cases remained on hold with the moratorium in effect.

In Cherokee County, an order restricting magistrate court proceedings to virtual hearings is in effect until Aug. 30, and the focus is now on using mediators to help resolve eviction cases, Chief Associate Magistrate Gregory T. Douds said.

“Just as before COVID, most cases tend to work themselves out if you can just get people in the same room together to talk,” Douds said. “It’s slow going, but that’s what we’re doing.”

In each of the last two months, the number of eviction filings has averaged about 100, or half that of early 2020. The number of eviction filings in March was 19 and in April, nine, according to Douds.

Cherokee County’s lead agency that provides aid to renters, MUST Ministries, has distributed about 13% of the county’s allocation and is now taking several weeks to process applications and get money into bank accounts, Douds said.

The majority of eviction cases that made it to court were default judgements in which the tenants left the house before the judge could rule. 

“The cases that went through completion, ended up in an eviction and (tenants) actually filed an answer and appeared, are very few,” Douds said. “Almost all of them negotiated some kind of deal. They went to MUST Ministries or they negotiated a delay so they could do that.”

The way magistrate courts handle evictions and provide tenants and renters with emergency assistance varies in different areas of the state, Reif said.

For example, Bibb’s magistrate court has been preventing hundreds of evictions from proceeding while recommending applicants for rental assistance, she said. Other courts don’t even provide leaflets to explain how rental assistance works, she said.

 

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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