December 16, 2020
Atlanta As the team visits one family after another in apartment complexes in metro Atlanta, after we talk to them about voting, early and by mail, we have been asking what it’s like to live there. Recently, our ears have been burning. In a number of developments, we were hearing about huge rent increases, despite the pandemic and the current eviction squeeze. One man on fixed income told me that in three years his rent had been jacked from $588 to $838. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Another woman, piecing a paycheck together by taking care of children in her unit, told me her rent was going up more than 10%.
The CDC ban on evictions accompanied by the courts’ refusal to process evictions in Fulton County, where Atlanta proper and its major institutions are housed, ends on December 31st, unless there is action by Congress. Tenants like the ones I visited are watching the news on tenterhooks. The Washington Post reports that several of the more moderate bipartisan bills for an interim stimulus seem to have a chance. One of them would extend eviction relief until January 31st, transferring the crisis to President Biden after the inauguration to come up with a more substantial solution. That bill includes more than $25 billion in rent relief.
Tenants are already caught in a squeeze though. The stimulus package in the CARES Act that expires at the end of December also had tenant relief, but matching the supply with the demand isn’t easy. As reported in the New York Times,
…more than 400 state and local governments have used money from the federal CARES Act to set up funds to cover at least $4.3 billion in rental assistance — money that has helped tenants pay their bills and landlords stay current on their mortgages, according to a database set up by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a policy group. But now many jurisdictions are reporting trouble spending it, and with barely two weeks left in the year, they are on pace to have more than $300 million left over, according to the coalition’s database. In a pattern that predated the pandemic, the programs have been complicated by bureaucratic hurdles, competing budget demands and a reluctance among landlords to take part.
Talking to the rest of the team, my experience turned out to be common. Rent was due. Fees were piling up. No one knew what to do. We’re visiting with the tip of the iceberg. An estimated eleven million tenants are likely in arrears some $70 billion in rent. Even with a better, more efficient delivery system on existing and future programs, this is a mountain to climb, and low-and-moderate income tenants are teetering between hope and homelessness.