A homeless person sleeping on the streets. (Credit: Kelly Jordan)

By Sean Keenan

While a tidal wave of evictions looms large over metro Atlantans in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who recently announced she’s contracted the virus herself, is shooting to curb the number of people who are uprooted from their homes. 

On Tuesday, Bottoms announced that an executive order which mandates public agencies put a hold on residential evictions and eviction filings would be extended through August 31. 

The move calls on Atlanta Housing, Atlanta Beltline, Inc., the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, Invest Atlanta, Partners for Home and the city’s Department of Grants and Community Development to put the kibosh on eviction proceedings, offering some critical breathing room to residents whose living situations have been jeopardized by the economic blowback of the public health crisis. 

Unfortunately, however, extending the moratorium on evictions will likely just delay the inevitable “tsunami” — as Atlanta’s chief housing officer Terri Lee put it — of displacement. 

Rick Rufolo, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), told SaportaReport in a recent interview that the metro Atlanta homeless population — as well as the statewide homeless population — will likely see a spike as a result of the expected wave of evictions “unless we see a significant push in the development of more affordable housing.”

Of course, seeing affordable housing projects through to fruition is no small task, and metro Atlanta was suffering from a mounting affordable housing shortage long before COVID-19 became a household term. 

While many folks wait for affordable options to become available — or be built — some are being forced to make tough financial decisions, Rufolo said, nodding to people waiting on unemployment benefits that could determine whether they’re able to pay rent or other bills. 

“You have people waiting on unemployment benefits having to make choices about which expenses to pay — whether to get the medical attention they need or make rent payments,” he said.

These days, Rufolo said, GLSP has been focusing more energy than usual on directing people toward government resources to help them stay at home. “We help people navigate the public benefit options, such as how to secure unemployment benefits,” he said, also mentioning a concentration on spotlighting government-backed rental assistance and housing programs. 

Rufolo said these clashing crises — the side effects of the pandemic mixed with an already staggering affordable housing crisis — “has shown us that there’s this really daunting intersection between public health and social and economic issues.”

“This really is a story about understanding this underlying issue of first providing stable housing so that people can address the basic human needs that they need in their lives,” he said.

Star-C, a housing affordability-focused nonprofit, recently ramped up its eviction prevention efforts “in direct response to COVID-19,” according to Courtney English, the organization’s director of community development. 

English told SaportaReport Star-C has worked with more than 50 landlords to help keep metro Atlantans at home. The organization, which has raised roughly $1.8 million — including a $1.5 million gift from Cobb County that helps residents in that community — for the cause, offers to pay up to 70 percent of residents’ delinquent rent payments and asks the landlords to forgive 10 percent of the backlog. Tenants are expected to pay for the rest. 

Star-C is still actively raising funds to prevent displacement and sends representatives to courts around the region to mediate landlord-tenant cases. “We want to create stable families,” English said. “Our mission is to reduce transiency for students so they can stay in school.”

On July 20, many metro Atlanta courts are expected to restart eviction proceedings, at which point the wave is expected to crash. 

(Header image, via Kelly Jordan: Local leaders hope to keep people from becoming homeless after the impending wave of evictions.)

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