In its relief package last December, Congress set aside billions of dollars to help millions of Americans at risk of being evicted from their homes amid the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program sought to provide a lifeline in the form of cash grants to renters and landlords, administered through state and local agencies. Some governments moved the money swiftly; others lagged behind.
The state agency charged with handling the lion’s share of Georgia’s ERA money distributed far less than 30 percent of those federal funds by the end of September, possibly jeopardizing some of the cash that’s supposed to help tenants avoid eviction and landlords avoid foreclosure.
By September 30, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) had disbursed just 9 percent—about $47 million—of the $552 million allocated by the Treasury Department, according to data the federal government released Monday. That’s well below the 30 percent threshold federal officials had established to decide which ERA grantees get to keep all their money—and potentially acquire more—and which could be forced to forfeit some so other agencies can use it.
Among the 13 agencies in Georgia that received the first round of ERA money—totaling more than $710 million—the DCA had the slowest distribution rate. Fulton County, by comparison, disbursed all of the $18 million it was allotted during that round.
DCA spokesperson Adrion Bell declined a request for an interview with agency officials and did not respond to further requests for comment, although he said on Oct. 12 the agency “does not anticipate” returning any money to the Treasury Department.
However, Treasury Department officials said in an October 4 letter to ERA recipients that, per the Congressional statute, they are required to “[recapture] dollars from the lowest performers that have been unable or unwilling to speed up assistance.” The agency said its goal was to “make more resources available to high-performing grantees based on need, incentivize adoption of best practices of grantees to help them streamline, and improve their processes and work to ensure funds do not go unused by programs unable to assist struggling renters and landlords.”
The federal agency said grantees can avoid sacrificing some of their cash if, by Nov. 15, they can show they’d spent at least 30 percent of the first ERA batch, obligated at least 65 percent of it—DCA officials did not answer questions about how much they’d promised to applicants—and could produce an impressive “program improvement plan” illustrating how they’d do better moving forward.
Grantees whose plans are approved by the Treasury Department will receive a onetime 15 percent bump to their expenditure ratio to help them meet the 30 percent mark, department spokesperson Elizabeth Bourgeois said.
That means, to retain all of its first-batch ERA money—the DCA was also awarded $192 million in the second round, which would not be impacted by this round of reallocation—the agency has until Nov. 15 to spend at least another $35.8 million and prove it obligated at least 65 percent of its $552 million to secure that nudge. To put that in perspective, it took the DCA eight months—from January to September—to spend $33 million.
The DCA is not alone in this struggle to move money. Nationwide, four in 10 ERA programs are at risk of recapture and reallocation of funds, according to an Oct. 12 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Officials in states with smaller populations, such as Wyoming and Delaware, have complained that Treasury Department takebacks are unfair because the spending target was “unrealistic” due to the amount allocated and they “desperately [need] this funding to cure severe shortages of affordable housing,” according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Georgia, however, is home to hundreds of thousands of residents who believe they could be at risk of eviction. The DCA had assisted fewer than 3,000 households by the Treasury’s deadline, leaving many renters scrambling.
Still, some institutions are optimistic the DCA will be allowed to retain its ERA haul, despite the agency’s shortcomings.
Audrea Rease, executive director of Star-C, a nonprofit that’s been helping Cobb County divvy up its ERA money, said, “I can’t imagine that the Treasury would pull funds from the DCA at this point.”
Because Star-C, one of a handful of organizations Cobb partnered with, has used nearly all of its allocated funds, she said they’ve begun directing people to apply directly with the DCA.
Atlanta Apartment Association spokesperson Chelsea Juras said the organization, which represents landlords and property owners across the metro area, has been providing feedback on the rental assistance application process and disbursement of funds. “We are optimistic that the [DCA] is focused on putting resources toward addressing barriers and working to get a significant amount of federal assistance out to residents and property owners in need before the end of the year,” she said.
Still, due to the DCA’s sluggish ERA distribution, many are at risk of losing their homes. “Communities across the state are going to suffer,” according to Michael Lucas, executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), which has been assisting the City of Atlanta and some other metro Atlanta jurisdictions with eviction prevention efforts. “Not only will families get displaced—many entering homelessness—classrooms and schools suffer from the churning of students in and out of their neighborhood schools.”
“What’s more,” Lucas added, “we risk losing more naturally occurring affordable housing stock as responsible, smaller landlords who are an important part of the housing landscape risk losing their rental properties.”
Some of the challenges the DCA has faced were shared by other agencies across the country: Many governments, for example, contracted third-party vendors—such as Star-C or AVLF—to help with the initial rollout of money. Online application portals struggled with glitches. DeKalb County’s ERA program even suffered a cyberattack in March. One of the most common speed bumps, though, stems from agencies requiring more paperwork from applicants than the Treasury Department requested, among other bureaucratic regulations.
Housing experts and legal professionals have said that allowing governments to give ERA money directly to renters—instead of paying landlords and utility companies on their behalf, as has been customary—is one of the best ways to move the money efficiently. Additionally, Treasury Department officials have urged ERA recipients to accept self-attestations—promises from applicants, essentially, that their financial and housing situations have been upended by the pandemic.
It’s unclear whether the DCA is routinely accepting self-attestations or encouraging its distribution partners to do the same, and the agency apparently has not begun providing ERA money directly to applicants.
Fulton, Gwinnett, and Hall counties allow for direct deposits into renters’ accounts when landlords decline to accept ERA funds—a common practice, legal organizations have said. Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, and Henry counties and the City of Atlanta do not offer that option.
A DCA official told WABE earlier this month that the agency has been increasing the amount of ERA money it distributes each month and that “once Treasury has an opportunity to look at our plan, they’ll realize we are doing everything that they’re requesting to meet their expectations.”
This article was produced in partnership with nonprofit news outlet Atlanta Civic Circle, where Sean Keenan is a reporter focused on housing affordability.