Fear of homelessness for the holidays: Georgia rental aid plan still dysfunctional

By: - December 15, 2021 1:00 am

A Georgia Emergency Rental Assistance Program plan details measures designed to speed up getting hundreds of millions of dollars into the hands of renters and cut down on a large backlog of requests. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/Getty Images)

Valdosta’s Nakima Reid has been waiting four months to find out if she’ll receive emergency rental assistance that would help her family keep a roof overhead.

The mother of three says she’s unsure where her family will live without the sorely needed support from the Georgia Emergency Rental Assistance Program, designed to provide rental and utility payments to low-income households in danger of eviction.

Reid is one of thousands of Georgia renters and landlords waiting for the financial relief that can cover up to 18 months of rent and utility bills from a Georgia Department of Community Affairs program that’s awaiting a response from the U.S. Treasury Department on its proposal to fix its lagging distribution system and avoid losing millions in federal funding. 

By Dec. 8, $55 million of the $552 million allocated for the first round of the Georgia Rental Assistance Program had gone to 8,523 renters. More than 39,000 renters have applied and another $4 million in payments are slated to go out, according to the department’s website

In Reid’s case, she fell behind eight months in rent after losing her job at a south Georgia pecan factory and that stress compounded with taking care of a 17-year-old son suffering from a serious medical condition. 

A local organization was able to walk Reid through the application process in July and while she is about to start a new job, she will need to pay back rent by the end of December or move out of the home she’s lived in for three years.

Reid completed the rental assistance application through a local organization in July, and though she has a new job, she faces tough choices.

“I think it’s sad that a lot of us are waiting around and then getting evicted,” the 42-year-old said. “I thank God, I have the type of landlord I have. He’s been patient but he has bills he has to pay.

“At the end of the day my faith in God is strong,” Reid said. “I can’t sit around and say that God will make way without doing anything. That being said, I have good faith that something’s going to come through.” 

The Treasury will soon determine if Georgia’s emergency rental program is making enough progress to prevent losing $120 million to other cities, counties, and states whose applications and payments have been processed more effectively.

More than 30 states submitted their performance improvement plans in November to the federal agency for review, with Georgia’s 9% distribution rate through September well below the 30% threshold set by the Treasury Department.

In the state’s performance improvement plan, the agency complains that it was hard to meet the challenges of launching the program under the quick turnaround. It detailed the steps it has taken to improve a program that is now delivering aid to renters and landlords 60% faster over the past month.

Those numbers should rise with a more user-friendly online portal that simplifies application reviews and payments, more community outreach, and a more efficient operation that allows Georgia residents from the 12 largest metropolitan areas to also apply directly with the state. 

Also, the state is transferring $74 million in emergency rental aid to four local rental assistance programs, in big metro Atlanta counties including Fulton, DeKalb, Henry and Clayton. Those four have distributed their entire first round of federal funding for their standalone programs.

“The state fully expects to expend its (first) allocation and have a significant statewide need for the (second round of) funding through 2025 and beyond,” the updated plan says.

‘Culture of compassion’

Since the Sept. 1 expiration of a federal eviction moratorium, which protected many tenants most at risk of becoming homeless during the pandemic, the number of eviction filings in Atlanta’s five-county region has ranged from as low as 9% in Gwinnett County to 38% in DeKalb County, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s data tracker.

The 125,000 evictions filed by landlords during the pandemic from April 2020 through the end of this November are half as many as the year before. However, about 30,000 eviction filings in the last three months represent nearly 75% of cases from the same period in 2019, according to the commission.

One of the groups on the frontlines helping Fulton County renters avoid evictions is the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which worked with the city of Atlanta on its rental aid program during the pandemic. 

Executive director Michael Lucas said that programs that provide critical services like rental aid work best when operated with a “culture of compassion.” 

While the state’s policy change to allow people to prove their eligibility on the front end is a good practice to speed up the process, at times there can be a disconnect, he said.

And with more eviction cases now moving through the courts, government officials, housing experts, and those in charge of social service programs warn of a tipping point in a housing crisis that for now relies on rental relief to slow the tide.

“We still saw issues that you often see in any large bureaucratic program where the policy maker said that self-attestation was allowed, but people were still being asked follow-up questions where their bank records were scrutinized,” Lucas said. “In some cases, there may be a place for that, but we saw it in places that I think didn’t make sense.”

And continuing updates to the state agency’s portal should make applying is easier for renters and tenants dealing with tense situations that become more frustrating the longer it takes, Lucas said.

“The DCA reports say that one of the biggest barriers is people not uploading the required documentation,” Lucas said. “I can’t believe that the vast majority of applicants don’t want to complete the process.”

Georgia DCA Commissioner Christopher Nunn defended his program against criticism, saying critics often ignore the existing local rental assistance programs that provided a safety net for renters in other states.

Georgia has sent payments to thousands of people requesting relief, while trying to make improvements after the program was hastily launched in March, he said.

“While DCA has streamlined compliance to a significant extent, (Emergency Rental Assistance) was not designed like other federal stimulus programs and cannot provide instantaneous benefits without an application and supporting documentation,” Nunn said in a statement. “To reach those facing an imminent threat of eviction, DCA engaged the magistrate courts early in the program. Any application for assistance that is flagged with an eviction filing is given priority handling.”

Georgia’s plan describes the obstacles behind having just six weeks to establish a rental assistance program, which meant preparing enough staff, setting up an online portal and contracting with community organizations.

In time, the state agency hired more staff after recruiting student workers to work night and weekend shifts from local colleges, set up a call center, and expanded coverage from 12 to 18 months.

The state is also working to raise the public’s awareness that this is an official government program and not a scam, since many landlords were reluctant to provide their bank information to receive the payments, the report says.

The new plan is to also identify and place outreach coordinators in 13 regions of the state.

Lucas said he believes the state would be better off spreading the word through local housing advocates instead of assigning regional outreach coordinators. 

Most of the agencies serving renters rely on private donations to supplement government funding, resulting in fewer people getting the help they need, he said.

“If you empower and support local providers throughout the state with more boots on the ground, they will get the word out and help people complete the process,” Lucas said.

According to Kimberly Skobba, associate professor of financial planning, housing, and consumer economics at the University of Georgia, a community-based approach to this type of program can be effective since the local organization already has built-in relationships.

As a whole, the state appears to be making some inroads by streamlining the application process while still following federal guidelines, she said.

What to know

To apply for Georgia’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program go to georgiarentalassistance.ga.gov or for assistance, contact the Department of Community Affairs at [email protected] or 833-827-7368.

For help with Section 8 problems, contact the Georgia Department of Community Affairs: 

https://www.dca.ga.gov/safe-affordable-housing/rental-housing-assistance/housing-choice-voucher-program-formerly-known  

If immediate assistance is needed because you are experiencing homelessness or on the verge of homelessness, please email [email protected] For more information, visit DCA’s Homeless and Special Needs Housing.

Georgia Legal Services Program can help with eviction cases  at 833-457-7529 or at https://www.glsp.org/housing/

 

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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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