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EXPLAINER: How GA rental assistance funds are trickling out

June 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Georgia:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Georgia is under the CDC moratorium. Judges around the state, with some exceptions, have not allowed landlords to throw tenants out for failing to pay rent. But they have continued to process those eviction cases and issue removal decisions that will go into effect once the moratorium expires. “Tenants are panicked,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. “They’re waiting for rental assistance. A lot of them have already received eviction orders from the court and are just waiting for the marshals to show up at their door.”

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

The federal government has set aside more than $1.2 billion for the state of Georgia and local governments to help with outstanding rents, utility payments and other expenses. The state received $552 million in the first round of funding. Another $437 million was set aside for Georgia this year. The city of Atlanta and numerous counties got separate funds from the federal government for their residents.

As of June 22, less than $8 million of the $552 million sent to the state had been distributed, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The money has helped more than 2,000 tenants. The department has previous experience with rental assistance programs, but not at this scale, the department’s deputy commissioner of housing, Tonya Cureton Curry, said in an email.

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Elsewhere in the state, by the end of the first week of June, the metro Atlanta county of Cobb had distributed roughly $3.5 million of the $22.8 million in federal rental assistance funds it received. Nonprofits that are distributing the funds there have said rigorous federal eligibility requirements made it hard to come up with a coordinated system to process applications, according to county officials. In nearby DeKalb County, an even smaller share of the money has gone out so far. County officials have blamed delays on a cyberattack in March on a server handling rental assistance applications.

The state’s money can go toward 12 months of past due rent and utility bills and is paid to landlords and utility providers, according to the community affairs department’s website. Siegel said if landlords choose not to participate, she’d like to see money flow directly to tenants.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Courts have tried to connect tenants to rental assistance programs. But in some counties, there’s not enough collaboration between the programs and the court system and applications aren’t reviewed fast enough to prevent eviction orders, said Viraj Parmar, managing attorney with the Housing Court Assistance Center in Atlanta.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Georgia. Eviction attempts didn’t stop during the moratorium. Parmar said some tenants unaware of the moratorium or their right to challenge an eviction have given up their housing. Landlords have also cited other violations unrelated to rent to remove tenants. “The fact that people have already moved out, and there’s a ton of rental assistance, all of this I’m hoping means we don’t see a tsunami,” he said. Still, he expects eviction filings to increase. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 184,489 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months. Making people aware of rental assistance programs is key, said Protip Biswas, who spearheads efforts to address homelessness at the United Way of Greater Atlanta. “I’m hopeful that it won’t be as bad as it could be,” he said.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

For renters in the Atlanta area, an eviction could be particularly hard. According to Realtor.com, the region has experienced among the steepest spikes in rent in the nation over the past year. As of May, the median monthly rent in the Atlanta area had risen 13.2% over the past year, to $1,536, according to a report released June 16 by Realtor.com. Median rents for a two-bedroom apartment were 14.6% higher, at $1,680.