As September ended, nearly 390,000 Georgia households were behind on rent.
There is money available to help them catch up – the state government received $552.3 million in federal Emergency Rental Assistance. By this time, they anticipated helping 55,000 households. Local governments across Georgia got millions more.
But by October first, the state had paid out money to a little over 9,784 households, and they do not know how many more Georgians are eligible for the program.
Some people, like Augusta resident Lisa Bates, have been waiting for months after applying.
“I don’t understand how the government can have all these funds available, and then you try to access the funds and no one wants to give them out,” she said.
But many Georgians never even applied.
A review by the Augusta Chronicle and Savannah Morning News has found only about 21,000 households have received the federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds given to state and local governments. The money was allocated as a stop-gap measure for both renters and landlords as people lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding covers up to 12 months back rent or utility payments and up to three months forward for people who lost income due to the pandemic.
The State of Georgia received $963.2 million in ERA funds through two Congressional appropriations, one in December 2020 and the other in March 2021. The state Department of Community Affairs received the bulk of the funding, $552.3 million. The remainder of the dollars were distributed to Atlanta and Atlanta-metro area counties, as well as Augusta-Richmond and Chatham counties.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, DCA has assisted 6,742 households with $32.9 million as of the end of August, just seven percent of available funds.
In Augusta-Richmond County, more than half the money has already been spent, but some residents say they have waited months to hear back on applications they submitted for assistance.
In Chatham County, three agencies were selected to distribute nearly $9 million in funds. The United Way of the Coastal Empire said in July that a backlog prevented them from getting money into renters’ and landlords’ hands as quickly as they wanted to. By the end of that month, Chatham County had distributed $1.6 million, less than 20%, of its $8.7 million allocation.
The Treasury expected local and state governments to distribute 65% of the money in the first round by Sept. 30 — but across all governments that received funding, only 15% of available funding had been spent by Aug. 31, the most recent month for which data is available. Once the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, Treasury will consider reallocating unused funds.
More:State agency distributes emergency rental assistance for Athens
Georgia is not alone in lagging behind federal expectations. The percentage of ERA funds distributed by state and local governments varies dramatically across the country: South Carolina is at 16% total, Alabama at 12%, Tennessee at 17%, Florida at 25%, and North Carolina at 54%.
DCA Deputy Commissioner for Housing Tonya Curry said that while the agency was given the 65% benchmark, DCA was not provided with any sense of where the overall funding amount came from or how many people in the state might be eligible.
“Definitely don’t have an idea about people eligible, because that’s not a number that we, the grantees, are working on,” Curry said. “I personally am not aware of Treasury’s direction on how they got to the amounts that we were awarded, again it’s probably based on census, renters, and things like that, which is a good place to start.”
The Chronicle sent an inquiry to Treasury about the 65% requirement, whether it was the correct benchmark, and how many renters Treasury estimated were eligible for ERA in Georgia. A spokesperson said that Treasury did not yet have a threshold of spending for state and local governments to avoid redistribution, but those that had spent more than 65% could receive re-allocated funding.
The process of identifying those funds began Thursday. Treasury has sent out updated guidance on the process, including that the department will set a clear minimum expenditure amount to avoid reallocation of “excess” funds. Grantees will be able to appeal to keep their funds. The new guidance says that reallocation will happen gradually, will seek to keep reallocated funds in the same state, and hopefully will involve voluntary reallocations.
“We have a lot of conversations with Treasury, they absolutely want to keep everybody moving forward with getting the funds out and keep that, that pressure on, that foot on the gas and keep that happening, but we also don’t feel like they’re going to be pulling back those funds, at least not by that deadline that they have,” Curry said.
“No one wants to give them out”
By Aug. 31, Augusta-Richmond County was nearing the milestone, with 59% of the $6.1 million allocated reaching 1,138 households.
But none of it got to Bates.
“I’ve been so stressed out trying to get my bills together, I done had two strokes,” Bates said. “Worrying about having a place to live and electricity and you know, it’s just so hard. “
More:As eviction moratorium ends, rental assistance grows in importance across Georgia
Bates has lived in Augusta on and off for 40 years, two years at her current apartment.
“I love the apartment,” she said. “What I like about it is it’s on my budget, and I that I know my neighbors, and I love the area that I live in.”
Her neighbor, Patsy Adams applied back in May for two months back rent. Adams told the Augusta Chronicle she has not heard anything back either.
Bates said her landlord has been very understanding in the interim.
“I understand he has a family to take care of as well, but he’s an outstanding landlord, he has really been there,” she said.
Bates was on disability when she moved in, but initially she had a roommate. When COVID hit, her roommate lost his job and has since moved out.
More:Evictions in flux in Richmond County as one moratorium ends, another begins
“You know I’m trying to juggle my little… $800 a month trying to make ends meet, and so on and so on and just got behind,” Bates said.
She figures she owes about a year’s worth of rent and utilities. When she first applied she requested around $3,000, although she thinks it may be more than that now. Anytime she saw some assistance program open up – through the United Way, which distributes all ERA funds in Richmond County, but also the Salvation Army, she put in an application.
The United Way of the CSRA did not return multiple requests for comment by deadline. According to an update given to the Augusta Commission on Sept. 29 ahead of approval of the second round of funding, United Way has spent 66 percent of the first round of ERA as the sole distributer in Richmond County.
“I try to do whatever I can over the phone,” Bates said. “I’m trying to explain to them I’m not very familiar with how to work the internet … I do whatever they tell me to do but I never hear anything.”
Chatham County enlists several nonprofits after slow start
In Chatham County, six nonprofits were enlisted to help distribute funds, according to the county’s website.
The county has distributed 24% of its first-round $8.7 million allocation and none of its nearly $3 million from the second round of funds, according to the U.S. Treasury. The county distributed no funds in April, and less than half-a-million dollars a month in March, June, July and August, despite adding four new nonprofit partners in August.
More:Savannah to resume water bill collections after long suspension; offers assistance to those with unpaid balances
Despite the lag, Chatham County is not choosing to reallocate its funds, according to Catherine Glasby, Chatham County spokesperson. But nonprofit leaders and community activists fear the slow distribution will impact renters facing eviction.
In Chatham County, there were more than 500 COVID-related eviction hearings waiting to be heard after the July 31 moratorium on evictions ended. Since the beginning of the pandemic, corporate landlords (not including mom-and-pop operations) have filed 2,974 evictions in Chatham County, according to data compiled by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
More:Resource Guide: What to know if you’re facing eviction in Chatham County
Throughout February and March, the county fielded confusion and misinformation regarding how people could access the funds.
Confusion over who the funds are for, and how to access them was evident in email messages between nonprofit leaders, Savannah city employees and Chatham County employees in February and March, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed.
While the City of Savannah did not receive funds, employees worked to get the information and funds out into the community, according to records obtained by the Savannah Morning News. The county also hosted a landlord meeting to field questions and distribute applications, emails revealed.
More:‘This community is not prepared’: Eviction moratorium extension delays inevitable pain for tenants, landlords
In a series of email exchanges between county and city employees, confusion over the Treasury’s rules and qualifications resulted in false information being sent out to dozens of city hall employees that stated funds only cover three months of unpaid bills.
Balance of State
DCA, meanwhile, has received far fewer applications than it anticipated getting when it was first putting together budgets earlier this year to cover the balance of the state – everything outside the 12 counties that received their own funding. In a draft PowerPoint from DCA for a Jan. 28 briefing of members of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, staff anticipated 20,000 application packages per month and 10,000 transactions per month to hit the 65 percent spend expectation.
Instead, as of Tuesday, DCA said they had received somewhere in the range of 22,000 applications, including incomplete or rejected applications. Of these, 13,275 thousand have been completed by both tenants and landlords, and 9,784 payments have been made.
The program was rolled out quickly – the final agreement between the governor’s office, which received the money directly from the Treasury Department, and DCA was signed on Feb. 9. On Feb. 11, representatives of DCA signed an agreement with HOTB Software Solutions to set up a portal for people to apply for aid.
Less than a month later, on March 8, the portal opened. DCA Deputy Commissioner Curry signed agreements to start bringing on temp staffers, eventually bringing on 140 employees to help with the distribution.
“When we were made aware that this money was coming, we immediately started working with our software vendor who created a portal and a process for us in about 30 days, or four weeks,” Curry said. “That’s really unheard of, really, really unheard of.”
According to several people, the state portal is straightforward to use. Sharon Scott, program coordinator at the CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority, has been referring residents of the counties surrounding Richmond to the state for economic assistance. Of the 452 referrals, she said just three people have needed assistance in applying.
“In talking with our constituents, they have said that the website is user-friendly but have had difficulty in speaking with a DCA representative when they have questions or experience difficulties during the application process,” Rep. Bishop said in a written statement shared with the Chronicle.
Bishop also highlighted the challenge of letting landlords and tenants know about the program.
In Effingham, a rural county northwest of Savannah that relies on DCA funds, Laura Wilcox was unaware that money was available for her and her veteran husband, who contracted COVID-19 and was unable to work for several weeks, putting them behind on utility payments.
Curry said that people experiencing issues should reach out directly to the person processing their applications through the portal, via email or by phone. She also said her office has been working to get the word out.
“I would say that we have used pretty much every opportunity in terms of media and social media that are available to us to get the word out about this program, I do a couple of interviews a day sometimes, definitely almost one every day, and talk to a lot of reporters,” Curry said. “Obviously we have all of our billboards and all of our PSAs and all of our social media that’s going strong, we have our outreach which is kind of our boots on the ground.”
To apply for Emergency Rental Assistance anywhere in the state, visit georgiarentalassistance.ga.gov/ for the Department of Community Affairs portal.
To request rental assistance in Augusta, contact the United Way of the CSRA by visiting uwcsra.org , calling 211, or texting RENT to 50503.
To request rental assistance in Savannah, visit uwce.org/211-2/ or call 211.
To request legal assistance from Georgia Legal Services, call 1-833-457-7529.