By Sean Keenan
The heavyweights of metro Atlanta’s housing field say now is the time to brace for a torrent of evictions in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, and because the public health catastrophe has forced courts, among other institutions, to put non-essential matters on the back burner, Fulton County alone is sitting on roughly 2,000 eviction filings, according to Michael Lucas, deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.
On Wednesday, during the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum’s digital convention, Lucas said, “There is going to be a flood [of evictions] … and a tremendous amount more emergency assistance is needed.”
Terri Lee, the City of Atlanta’s chief housing officer, said during the morning conference that, unless a drastic emergency response is effected to combat the onslaught of eviction proceedings, “July is when the tsunami could really hit.”
Added Lucas: “As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.’”
So how can metro Atlanta respond to the staggering blow dealt by the novel coronavirus?
Experts at the Housing Forum and at Tuesday’s online meetup of advocacy group HouseATL said that getting more landlords to accept housing vouchers is a good place to start.
As Atlanta Housing CEO Eugene Jones has told SaportaReport in the past, there is a stigma associated with the term “public housing” that deters some private landlords from accepting Housing Choice — or Section 8 — vouchers.
Additionally, the modern civil rights movement that’s been invigorated by the tragic deaths of black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery has spotlighted the racial inequities associated with housing in metro Atlanta and beyond.
James Alexander, president of Mercy Housing Southeast, said Wednesday that issues of racial inequity and injustice in the housing world aren’t new. “How we set up walls and barriers around communities through zoning is really a coded form of racism across the country,” he said.
Producing new affordable housing is of course a chief goal among metro Atlanta’s housing leaders, although the economic impact of the pandemic has made that increasingly difficult. Deep-rooted issues of inequality, such as exclusionary zoning policies, pose challenges as developers look for land where affordable housing can be built, Alexander said.
There are, though, some efforts underway to prevent mass displacement in metro Atlanta and across the country. In addition to the emergency funding the City of Atlanta has already allocated toward rental assistance and eviction diversion measures, the local government is set to divvy up $88 million of federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Lee, Atlanta’s housing chief, said Wednesday that she was proud that 58 percent of that federal funding will go toward homelessness, emergency rental assistance, eviction diversion and small business development.
Also, Atlanta Habitat for Humanity is currently helping dozens of families with mortgage relief for between one and three months, said CEO Lisa Gordon.
Additionally, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs recently received $45 million from the federally backed Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program, according to David Whisnant, director of the office of homeless and special needs housing.
Forty percent of that funding the DCA got will be aimed at rental assistance and eviction prevention, he said, adding, “A lot of families will be homeless if they’re evicted. And if you’re homeless it’s even harder to maintain or find employment, so these funds can be used to pay rental arrears so folks can keep their housing.”
Despite those options, though, more work — and money — is needed to offset the inevitable barrage of evictions that will occur once Fulton County courts are processing filings again.
(Header image, via David Pendered: The Jefferson Park neighborhood near Atlanta’s airport at one point had the highest eviction rate in Fulton County.)