Thousands of renters facing homelessness due to COVID-19(l-r) Anthony, Lamar, 4, and Lamar’s mother Paris wait behind the Decatur Library for transportation from DeKalb County to arrive to take them to a local hotel for up to 30 days. Photo by Dean Hesse.
By Cathi Harris, contributor
Decatur, GA – Thousands of renters in metro Atlanta are struggling to keep a roof over their heads during the COVID-19 pandemic due to lost jobs or drastically reduced work hours, housing advocates warn.
And local charities and relief agencies who offer housing and utility assistance have been dealt a double blow as they suffer both from a sudden drop in funding and increased demand.
“With the implementation of social distancing, and the shuttering of non-essential businesses due to COVID-19, we have experienced a 70 percent increase in requests for assistance from this time in 2019,” says John Berry, chief executive officer of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) a Catholic nonprofit organization offering assistance to lower-income Georgians statewide. “From March 1 to April 10, we have assisted 2,858 households.”
Of that total, 910 households requested assistance with making rent, with half citing loss of work due to COVID-19 as the reason, Berry said. An additional 731 households received food donations, grocery gift cards or food vouchers. The remaining households requested assistance with utility bills, healthcare costs, transportation, or other basic necessities.
At the same time, the closure of church campuses and thrift stores that provide financial support have meant that revenue for their direct-aid financial assistance abruptly stalled. In addition, food donations to supply their 38 food pantries are running low due to the stress on their grocery retail partners and lack of food available for recovery, Berry added. “Our staff and volunteers have been creative in organizing parking lot food bag pickups and independently purchasing food to ensure that needs are still met.”
Berry said he is particularly worried about the people who “fall through the cracks” of the federal CARES Act stimulus package and are receiving little to no help from the government.
“Many people ages 17 to 24 who hold lower-paying, entry-level jobs, have less secure housing arrangements and often struggle with student loan debt were claimed as dependents in 2019 so they will not receive any funds,” he said. People working in non-traditional sectors of the economy may also not qualify for payments due to their immigration status.
SVDP’s story is repeated across the spectrum of relief agencies in DeKalb and the Atlanta region with agencies such as the Decatur Cooperative Ministry, Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry, Atlanta Mission and others requesting donations to help provide needed services.
Evictions delayed, but rent still due
Even though Fulton and DeKalb Counties have both halted evictions for nonpayment of rent for at least 30 days, landlords can and are still filing eviction proceedings with the courts, said Bambie Hayes-Brown, president of the nonprofit Georgia Advancing Communities Together (Georgia ACT).
Hayes-Brown and other advocates participated in an affordable housing videoconference last week sponsored by the Coalition for a Diverse DeKalb and Coalition for a Diverse Decatur.
“I think the courts are going to be flooded with eviction filings when [the moratoriums] are over,” Hayes-Brown said to call participants. If renters are unable to pay the overdue rent for the next month, they can be evicted then.
The protections from eviction also don’t cover the many households who are living in unofficial rental arrangements without a written lease or people living in hotels or motels, she added. With half of Georgia renters paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, lower-income workers are often unable to qualify for traditional leases and must rely on options like hotels or unlicensed rooming houses for shelter.
“We are seeing a particular issue with the extended-stay motels,” Hayes-Brown said. “I received a call about a situation in Clayton County, where they were checking everyone out at 30 days and making them check back in.”
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In an email to Decaturish after the meeting, Hayes-Brown said she believed that some hotel owners were doing this to prevent the occupants from being able to qualify as tenants or residents and be protected from eviction.
“I’m not an attorney, but I know that some of our partners at Atlanta Legal Aid have been able to successfully argue that after 90 days, a person becomes a ‘tenant’ and should be afforded the same rights as tenants in traditional rental units,” she said. “Although I have not spoken with the owners as to why they make people check out on day 30, a very educated guess that it is because the owner or management company does not want people to establish legal residency. If they become a resident, then the owner/management company would have to go through the legal process of eviction (notice, filing in court, having the family served, going to court, having a writ filed, and the actual eviction). It is costly to evict people, so they have people ‘move out’ so that the owner can maintain their status as an innkeeper not landlord.”
Help is available
The federal CARES Act does contain some provisions to help prevent renters from losing their homes due to the pandemic, including rental assistance and assistance for owners of rental property that are experiencing loss of income, says Sara Patenaude, a member of the Coalition for a Diverse DeKalb and project manager with the nonprofit affordable housing developer Tapestry Development Group.
“Multifamily owners with properties covered by a federally backed mortgage can request a forbearance [for mortgage payments] for 30 days, which can be extended up to 60 days, if they agree not to evict tenants or charge late fees,” Patenaude said during the call. The federal legislation also prohibits owners of buildings with federally backed mortgages from filing for evictions for 120 days.
Owners of buildings with financing through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program are prohibited from filing for eviction for non-payment of rent.
CARES also contains $4 billion for Emergency Solutions Grants (ESGs) nationwide that are designed to offer payments to households with incomes less than 50 percent of the area median income. These payments are designed to provide rental assistance and rental deposit assistance for individuals and families, as well as support local rapid rehousing efforts and temporary shelters. The distribution criteria are determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered through the states.
An additional $5 billion has been allocated for community development block grants (CDBGs) to cities and states to help stabilize housing. The funding for both the ESG and CDBG programs is being released in waves, with some available initially and then more distributed based on need.
Locally, the City of Atlanta has established a $7 million emergency fund to help city residents obtain help with food, health care and shelter needs. DeKalb County is stepping up efforts to find temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness, Patenaude said. The county is asking owners of vacant short-term rentals, apartments and hotels and to contact Melvia Richards in the Department of Community Development if they are able to allow these spaces to serve as shelter for people in need.
Hourly and service workers hit hard
PadSplit manages rooms in private properties across the metro area – renting the rooms individually to its members. When businesses started closing down last month, company leadership quickly saw the beginning of a crisis for low-wage workers.
“Because our [rent] cycles are shorter, we probably saw this earlier than a lot of the companies that are just now seeing that first missed rent payment,” PadSplit founder Atticus LeBlanc told Decaturish.
Founded in 2017, PadSplit’s goal was to enable many workers in public service, health care, retail and the restaurant industry to find affordable housing close to where they worked. Their members rent rooms in houses and apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Rental terms can be weekly, monthly or yearly. The membership fee to PadSplit — separate from the rent for the room — covers the cost of screening both the tenants and properties plus additional amenities like access to health care via telemedicine, internet service and laundry services.
“The telemedicine visits allow members access to a physician who can write prescriptions — without having to go to a doctor’s office,” LeBlanc explained. “It has always been included with our member services, although it is used more heavily now.”
Once the crisis hit, LeBlanc organized a video webinar with all of the property owners.
“I think everyone was in agreement that no one should have to move out during this,” LeBlanc said. “We probably have about 55 or so [different property owners] and they were working out concessions on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, they were deferring all payments and some were even talking about providing resources — like food — to the tenants. I know landlords get a bad reputation. But I have been pretty pleased with the way that most of ours have responded.”
Many members are in the process of figuring out what to do — whether to try to stay where they are now that they are unemployed or whether to move in with friends or family or return to their hometowns. And, as the shutdown continues, LeBlanc knows that the owners will be unable to forego rent indefinitely.
“We have set up a separate nonprofit fund that we have been able to raise about $60,000 so far to provide support to people who have lost their jobs,” he said.
He is also hopeful that people who own short-term rentals may be open to listing with PadSplit now that the emergency orders have required that vacation rentals be closed. They do still have rooms available for rent for people who need them.
The crisis has just exacerbated what was already a dire situation in the Atlanta housing market, he said.
“What our housing does is provide safe, affordable shelter at a rate that allows people to also save some money to have so that they can eventually move on to their own apartment or their own house, instead of always being one step away from being homeless,” he explained. “Our members have jobs. They are not felons, they have to pass a background check.”
There needs to be legal, safe and affordable options for people with incomes too high to qualify for publicly subsidized housing but who don’t make enough to afford market-rate housing in town, he said. “With our current zoning regulations and the higher percentage of single-family housing we have, that is very hard to accomplish.”
If You Need Help
If you live in DeKalb County and need homelessness prevention or housing services, please contact DeKalb County Coordinated Entry by calling (404) 687-3500.
The following organizations in Atlanta, Decatur, and DeKalb County are offering some assistance with rent, rental deposits and food.
If You Can Offer Help
These organizations are seeking financial donations, food contributions, or help with sheltering people without homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeKalb County is coordinating emergency shelter for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. If you have a vacant rental property that could be used for emergency shelter, please contact Melvia Richards in the DeKalb County Department of Community Development.
St. Vincent de Paul – Georgia
– Donate perishable and non-perishable food to a local SVdP Conference or the Chamblee Thrift Store or Family Support Center.
– Volunteer at the Chamblee or Lakewood Family Support Centers to help with home food deliveries to neighbors in metro-Atlanta. Visit the volunteer page on our website.
– Make a financial donation to your local SVdP Conference, or the SVdP Georgia Response Fund.
– If, when you receive your stimulus check, it feels more like a windfall than a lifeline, please consider Paying it Forward by donating a portion of it to the SVdP Georgia COVID-19 Response Fund.
– Visit the website to learn more about how we are responding and how you can help.
Decatur Cooperative Ministry
Decatur Cooperative Ministry is seeking financial donations to support its clients who are in transitional housing and in rental housing in Decatur.
Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry
Financial donations to DEAM provide food and assistance with utility bills.
Intown Collaborative Ministries
ICM is asking for donations of food that can be brought to its dropoff locations. Their requests for food assistance have increased fourfold due to COVID-19.
Code/Out and PadSplit Fund for Hourly Wage Workers
Code/Out, a nonprofit which teaches coding classes to incarcerated women in Georgia, and affordable housing company PadSplit have launched a fund to support housing for low-wage workers in the Atlanta area.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the chief executive officer of St. Vincent de Paul. This story has been updated with the correct information.
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