‘It’s Inexcusable’: Just 10% of Georgia’s $552 Million in Rent Relief has Reached Tenants, Landlords after 8 Months

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Key Points
  • Georgia ranks 12th-slowest among states for paying out $552 million in federal COVID-19 rental assistance that must be spent or given to other states.
  • Only $57 million— roughly 10% — had been distributed between April and mid-December even as state officials spent more than $11 million on internal costs.
  • The federal government could give millions of Georgia’s rent-assistance dollars to other states to spend on their residents if local officials don’t use it soon.

Sade Braden has six kids, works two jobs and is about to be evicted from her metro Atlanta apartment. The 33-year-old mother caught COVID-19 in July, forcing her to miss months of work as an emergency-room accountant at Emory University Hospital. She’s one of thousands of Georgians who have staked their housing on $710 million that the federal government has given the Peach State to help people pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But Georgia’s state government, responsible for distributing most of the federal aid, is one of the slowest in the nation at doing so. 

Nearly five months later, Braden still hasn’t heard from either the state, city or county officials whom she reached out to for help with her application – leaving her in a bind for how to keep a roof over her kids’ heads while she works 12 hours a day to catch up on missed rent.

“It’s not fair to the people that actually need the help,” said Braden, who lives in DeKalb County and whose children range from ages 5 to 15. “I’m from Georgia and I’ve always kept a roof over my head. But right now, we just need help.”

Georgia is on the clock to dole out $552 million the federal government has given the state’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to help thousands of struggling residents pay their rent. DCA officials had paid out just $57 million of that to applicants between April and mid-December this year – rounding out to a 10% clearance rate more than 8 months into the program. Many applicants have waited two to three months or more to receive their approved payments. At the same time, DCA has spent about $11 million on administrative costs to run the program, equaling around 16% of the total amount spent so far from DCA’s share of rent-assistance funds.

Roughly 258,000 Georgian households had fallen behind on their rent as of Oct. 1, according to data from the National Equity Atlas. To date, DCA has distributed payments to 8,500 local tenants and landlords, officials said, with another roughly 33,000 approved households still waiting to receive $200 million in approved payments by mid-November. That month, U.S. Department of the Treasury officials notified DCA that Georgia could lose a chunk of its unspent rent funding, leaving potentially up to between $35 million and $120 million on the table that could otherwise benefit some 7,000 to 25,000 local households in need of help, according to Federal Reserve Bank estimates.

  • With 258,000 households behind on rent as of Oct. 1, the $552m rounds out to roughly $2,100 per household, assuming all households are behind because of COVID-19. 
  • The average approved payment is $6,300 payment, according to DCA officials – which rounds out to roughly $1,000 spent per approved payment on administrative costs.

Georgia’s state government has trailed many other states and local governments in distributing its share of emergency rental assistance. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Lag Times Frustrate Georgians

As of the federal government’s last count, Georgia’s DCA ranked 12th slowest among state agencies across the U.S. in terms of divvying up the rent funds it’s been given, according to Treasury data. Other states like North Carolina have pushed out their funding far faster than Georgia, with the Tar Heel State having pumped out more than 80% of its $522 million allocation by the end of October, records show. Likewise, even local cities and counties such as Atlanta and Gwinnett have moved quicker to pay out their own shares of the federal rent money – and they potentially could nab some of DCA’s unspent funds in the coming weeks.

The lag times have frustrated many Georgians facing eviction and local housing advocates who have pushed the state to pick up the pace, including some state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

“No, it’s not being run as well as it could,” said state Rep. Rick Williams (R-Milledgeville). “Too much red tape. Our citizens deserve better.”

“It’s inexcusable that we have $552 million at our disposal to help these families stay in their homes, but (Gov. Brian) Kemp and his department can’t get claims processed any quicker, especially given how much they’ve spent administering the program,” said state Rep. Shea Roberts (D-Atlanta).

Kemp’s office declined to comment on the program for this story. DCA officials have urged patience and faith in the state’s assistance program, noting that the agency has grappled with an “unprecedented opportunity” in which many hard-hit Georgians who heard about the program initially thought it “was too good to be true,” said DCA spokesman Adrion Bell.

“We have not identified any challenges that we were not able to overcome with marketing, outreach, additional staffing, extending working hours and offering overtime,” Bell said in response to questions from State Affairs. “We have a continuous review process to identify and prevent fraud…. We also established communication with our county magistrate courts so that judges are aware of the program and can use it as an alternative to evictions.”

Georgia’s state government has trailed North Carolina in distributing emergency rental assistance. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Months on Hold for Rent Help

Like most states, Georgia’s rental-assistance program was slow to get started due to the need to staff up, build an online application portal and inform residents on how to navigate the complex paperwork required for payment approval. Still, DCA pushed out $9 million in rent payments in July – far less than several states with similar-sized funding amounts such as Virginia, which cleared nearly $59 million that month, and North Carolina, which paid out more than $67 million. The following month, North Carolina’s pay-out total surpassed $133 million, Treasury data shows. Georgia’s tally was around $13 million.

“Something is missing,” said Bambi Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of the nonprofit housing coalition Georgia Advancing Communities Together. “They’re not reaching the people who are on the ground. They’re not reaching these grassroots organizations who are working with people who need the help.”

The slow pace has left many local housing advocates scratching their heads as to what’s causing the turnaround hurdles, especially since several Georgia city and county governments that also received $158 million in rent-assistance funding from the Treasury had paid out more than $100 million through October. Many such as Atlanta and Gwinnett County have since used up the remainder of their allocations, according to officials and federal data.

With the looming risk of losing funds, DCA officials have pledged to send $74 million in unspent rental assistance to local cities and counties that have drained their shares and still have thousands more tenants and landlords who need help. But even with that money shuffling, Georgia could still lose $100 million or more in rent funding clawed back by the Treasury and potentially given to other states that have distributed larger amounts of their allocations.

“This means that some programs might lose funding,” said Sarah Stein, an affordable-housing adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “And perhaps households that could have been helped by that program might not be able to be helped if the geography’s different from where the money goes.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates show Georgia risks losing a portion of its unspent rental assistance dollars in the near future. (Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta)

‘I Have No Plan B’

It’s not just the lengthy application that has slowed down Georgia’s rental assistance. Once approved, there’s also a delay in approved Georgians actually receiving their rent payments. As of mid-December, DCA officials said more than 8,500 Georgia tenants and landlords had received rental assistance – but that around 33,000 applications total have been approved as of mid-November.

Pat Reagan, who said she was approved for rental assistance in March, went months without any word on when she would receive payment. Behind on rent, she was forced to take out a $12,000 loan to make up the difference, which prompted DCA to disqualify her from obtaining a rent payment — even though her application was approved months earlier. 

“I am now in horrible debt, facing not being able to renew my lease,” the 60-year-old Reagan told State Affairs. “I have no plan B. And it’s Christmas time.”

Braden, who applied to the state in July after she had to pause work due to contracting COVID-19, said she filled out DCA’s online application and uploaded paperwork like her lease and income documents, then was met with silence from the state. She filled out the same application for DeKalb County’s assistance program, as well as for the city of Atlanta. She says there’s been no word for months from any of those three governments about the status of her application.

“I left messages after messages after messages,” said Braden, who works half the day stocking shelves at Walmart and the other half in Emory’s hospital. “Still haven’t had anybody call back or nothing. It’s trash.”

Getting all the needed paperwork together to apply for rental assistance has also snarled the process, according to local advocates, renters and former temporary state staff who reviewed rent applications. Most applicants don’t turn in all the documents needed to gain approval, such as lease agreements, eviction notices, income statements, proof of pandemic-related hardships and self-attestation forms that applicants can submit if they’re missing certain records. The back-and-forth between applicants and DCA processors to nail down every piece of paperwork can cause delays, said Daphne Walker, DCA’s housing-assistance division director who has led the rent program since May.

“The biggest thing is we cannot pay an applicant without documentation,” Walker said. “Until we get the documentation, we just simply can’t assist.”

That explanation has raised eyebrows among some housing advocates who point to other states’ success rates for rolling out rent payments. Michael Lucas, the executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, pinned blame more on communication gaps between DCA and nonprofit groups that could pitch in more to hand-hold residents as they work through their applications.

“It’s hard to believe our landlords and our tenants are just so much less sophisticated than those in other states under the same Treasury guidance that have gotten this funding out,” Lucas said at a Dec. 1 meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum. “That’s not pointing the finger. That’s saying there is some disconnect, and we need to work harder together to keep asking these probing questions about how it is actually working on the ground.”

Many staff for Georgia’s rental assistance program work at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Is All Hands on Deck Enough?

To beef up its assistance program, DCA had spent more than $11.2 million of its $552-million funding share through November on internal costs, mostly to hire temporary staff for processing applications, records show. The agency had about 125 workers for the assistance program in mid-December, less than half as many as North Carolina’s program that has paid out roughly $420 million of its total $522 million in rent payments. Staffing up early was key for North Carolina to overcome similar technical glitches and processing bottlenecks that Georgia has faced, said Laura Hogshead, the chief operating officer for the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Even with the extra help, problems cropped up early in DCA’s program as processors would approve applications, only to have them stall with managers who double-check information for accuracy and underwriters who green-light the payments, said Leona Davis, a Gwinnett County resident who worked as a temporary DCA staffer from February to May.

“It was just overall chaotic and disorganized,” Davis said in an interview with State Affairs. “I’m a helpful person in heart. And it’s very frustrating and infuriating when you have a system that’s built to help people, but it was just so convoluted and flawed.”

Going forward, DCA officials plan to hire an outside group to help weed out duplicate applications and fraud, increase part-time staff to work evening and weekend shifts, and expand outreach efforts with in-house and contracted marketing teams to raise awareness about how to apply. DCA had already spent more than $2.3 million on marketing, public relations and advertising for the program by December, state records show.

Many Georgia tenants and landlords just want DCA to keep them better informed about the status of their rent applications. Darion Dunn, a managing partner for the Atlanta-based real estate group Atlantica Properties, said the slow application turnaround and uncertainty creates friction between tenants strapped for money and landlords who need the rent.

“That’s what can lead to outcomes that aren’t good for affordable housing,” Dunn said. “During that time of uncertainty, evictions and collections are being filed against tenants. That hurts them for years. Landlords are selling their properties because they’re afraid, and they could be selling to new owners that are going to raise rents.”

State lawmakers are watching the progress of Georgia’s rental assistance program. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

State Lawmakers Weigh in

Some state lawmakers have agreed DCA’s rent-assistance program needs tightening. Others have shown more faith in DCA officials’ ability to speed up payment turnarounds, noting problems with incomplete applications and uncooperative landlords have hindered the process.

State Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta) suggested Georgia lawmakers could probe the DCA program to see how to make improvements in January when the General Assembly convenes for the annual legislative session. “We do need to do whatever we can to speed this money up and give it to the people who need it,” Harrell said.

State Rep. David Dreyer (D-Atlanta) urged quicker payment turnaround to help renters in need and keep Georgia from suffering the economic fallout of evictions. “If we were to deploy this money as it was intended, not only would it help people, but it would help the economy in Georgia,” Dreyer said. “And there’s a lot of places that could use a lot of extra help right now.”

Other Georgia lawmakers have urged faith in DCA’s program, noting the hurdles involved with paperwork processing. State Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s been in contact with DCA officials about the issues they’ve encountered. “I think they’re ready to do whatever they need to do,” England said. “It’s just a matter of folks applying and the landlords actually responding back.”

State Rep. Steven Sainz (R-Woodbine), who serves as vice chair of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said he hasn’t received a briefing yet from DCA about the assistance program. “I hope and expect DCA to do everything in its power to administer the funds equitably and expediently throughout the state,” Sainz said.

Some lawmakers have met with DCA officials in recent weeks to discuss challenges facing the program. State Rep. Becky Evans (D-Atlanta) said she’s waiting on details she requested from DCA about how much demand for rental assistance the agency has seen and which local nonprofit groups are working with DCA. “Is it because the demand isn’t there?” Evans said. “Or that we haven’t done a good enough job of publicizing?”

For state Rep. Viola Davis (D-Stone Mountain), the bottom line is DCA officials, local governments and lawmakers need to do whatever it takes going forward to make sure Georgians at risk of losing their homes receive help.

 “We can always come up with different excuses as to who’s to blame for slowing down the payments,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, we have people that we need to keep in housing. Period. And we need to work together to do it.”

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