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George on Georgia – When $21 million isn’t enough

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George on Georgia – When $21 million isn’t enough

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

DeKalb County has about 760,000 residents, living in about 280,000 homes, at least until the marshals come. Evictions are crude here. People with guns and badges do what they can to keep people calm. Most people accept the moment with resignation. And then men pile couches and kitchen tables and cribs on the sidewalk.

One out of seven households lived in poverty before the pandemic started last year – about 40,000 families. On paper, about 26,000 people are unemployed here, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. As a practical matter, you can probably double that number; the U-6 unemployment rate which accounts for part-time and underutilized work in Georgia is twice as high. DeKalb has 400,000 people who can work and 50,000 of them are in trouble.

“Housing insecurity has been an issue since this pandemic started,” DeKalb Commissioner Steve Bradshaw told me recently. He noted how he took his $1.4 million allocation of CARES Act money and sent it to local organizations that have been working on housing problems, like Sheltering Arms and Our House, Inc. But it’s chicken feed next to the need.

To be clear: a lot of people were already in trouble. A housing crisis has been building like snowdrifts in a blizzard for years, incrementally worsening with rising rents. Of those 280,000 households, about 90,000 have less than $32,000 a year in earnings. At a 3-to-1 income-to-rent ratio, that locks them out of housing that costs more than $900 a month, in a county where the average rent is about $1,250 and virtually nothing rents below $900.

Zillow, today, has 347 homes for rent and exactly one is on offer below $1,000.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that 8,000 eviction cases are pending before the DeKalb magistrate’s court. Untold numbers of others have been forced from their housing anyway, because their leases expired and landlords chose not to renew tenancy … and the tenants did not understand their rights.

Those eviction filings are damage already done. Landlords will refuse to rent at reasonable rates to people with a court record of evictions. Or, they will demand larger security payments or higher income-to-rent ratios to compensate, an expense that only poor people pay.

DeKalb received $21 million in eviction relief money to distribute here. Applications opened last week. Two days later, at least 7,000 people had applied for help. The county quickly announced that they would cut off applications the following Monday. At the end, between 8,000 and 9,000 people applied.

Take $21 million, and divide it by, say, 8,500. You get $2,470.59. That’s about two months back rent here, assuming it’s parceled out equally.

It reminds me of the mad scramble for Section 8 vouchers in the recent past. When word came of a years-long waiting list opening, desperate people would camp out overnight, sometimes for days, to be far enough ahead in line to get help. The federal government mercifully did away with this Kafkaesque process years ago, shifting from a first-come, first-served approach to prioritizing help based on measurements of relative need.

The county did not establish rules for how to distribute the money before starting applications. That’s understandable: people need help as soon as possible. But it appears that the county will rely on the results of individual mediation and negotiation between landlords and tenants to determine how to distribute this money. As you can imagine, that’s going to take a while. But the federal moratorium on evictions ends on March 31.

It’s clear to elected officials here that $21 million probably won’t prevent a wave of evictions, alone. They’re looking for more aid in the next tranche of relief funding from the federal government, and an extension of the eviction moratorium.

“It is important people understand even with the best intent and the $21 million grant, the county plainly and simply does not have enough financial resources to provide the extensive relief that is needed by landlords and tenants throughout DeKalb,” said commissioner Lorraine Cochrane-Johnson. “People should be aware solving the gap between resources, landlords and tenants will be an ongoing issue and I fully expect additional resources to continue from the federal level.”

And yet, Republicans in congress seem perfectly willing to argue against a robust relief package. Someone needs to explain to them that the difference between winning and losing Georgia came down to aggressive political outreach in Atlanta’s suburbs like DeKalb County, and that people here will think of them every time they drive by a children’s dresser on the side of the road, because they’re not going to have to imagine how it got there. 

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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