Part IV: ‘I Have No Plan B’

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Dec 16, 2021
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.

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.”

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)

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.”


Part V: Is All Hands on Deck Enough?