Georgia Today: Extended CDC Pandemic Eviction Ban Delays Day Of Reckoning For Georgia Tenants
Hundreds of thousands of Georgians who lost income in the pandemic, falling behind on their rent payments and putting them at increased risk for eviction, just got another reprieve. After a previous CDC eviction ban expired earlier this week, the Biden administration has again frozen evictions, this time until early October. The new moratorium aims to cover renters in counties with “substantial” spread of the delta coronavirus variant. But for the state’s most vulnerable families living on the economic margins, the realities of finding and maintaining safe, affordable housing were much more complicated long before the pandemic hit.
Steve Fennessy: Hundreds of thousands of Georgians who fell behind on rent during the pandemic just got another reprieve. Earlier this week after a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction ban in place since last fall expired, President Joe Biden has announced a new order. The new moratorium freezes evictions until October in counties seeing, quote, “substantial” community spread of the velta coronavirus variant. In Georgia, the extended order applies to all but three of the state's 159 counties.
Brian Goldstone: Places where evictions have spiked have seen enormous increases in COVID transmission, hospitalizations and death. So it was really under that banner that the CDC took on the authority to say this could have catastrophic public health effects of people are put out of their homes.
Steve Fennessy: The order is another twist for some of the nation's most vulnerable tenants. The administration is also pressuring states to more quickly distribute $45 billion in pandemic aid set aside to help these very renters pay their landlords. So far, just $3 billion of assistance has been distributed. So what could all this mean for families on the economic margins? For more, I'm joined by Brian Goldstone. He's an Atlanta-based journalist who's writing a book on the rise in homelessness and housing insecurity among the working poor in the U.S.
So, Brian, the original CDC eviction moratorium was designed to temporarily protect millions of tenants nationwide. So remind us what this eviction ban was. How did it actually work for tenants and for landlords?
Brian Goldstone: From the beginning, the CDC eviction moratorium was really a stopgap measure. This was not going to keep all renters from losing their homes even during a pandemic. And indeed, evictions have very much been happening despite this moratorium. The reason why evictions have continued to happen is because there have been gigantic loopholes that landlords have been able to exploit.
[News Tape] 13WMAZ: To be protected as a renter, you had to have taken three steps. One: Sign the eviction declaration. Two: Certify that your answers are true. And three: Give the documents to your landlord.
Brian Goldstone: And a lot of renters simply didn't even know and still don't know what the process was for making that known to their landlord. Many landlords denied ever receiving the paperwork from their tenants. Legal aid attorneys, in some cases, were advising clients to record themselves presenting the paperwork to their landlord, to send the document that you had to download on the CDC website via certified mail. So there were a lot of problems with this moratorium from the very beginning. Having said that, it did keep millions of people in their homes.
Steve Fennessy: How does the CDC have the authority to do this to begin with?
Brian Goldstone: As many will remember, sheltering in place, staying in your home was really the only prescription we had for dealing with COVID prior to the vaccination effort. So epidemiological research has shown that places where evictions have spiked have seen enormous increases in COVID transmission, hospitalizations and deaths. So it was really under that banner that the CDC took on the authority to say this could have catastrophic public health effects if people are put out of their homes.
Steve Fennessy: And maybe this goes without saying. But just because you — you can skip some months of rent doesn't mean you no longer owe those months of rent. You still are obligated to pay that eventually, right?
Brian Goldstone: That's right. So the moratorium was really just delaying the inevitable, which is that one day this rent that has been piling up, which would come due. The saving grace really for all of these vulnerable renters was the fact that the federal government under the American Rescue Plan had designated close to $50 billion for rental assistance, and that was roughly the amount that renters in America now owe in back rent. So theoretically, there is now enough money to cover all of the rent that tenants have accrued during this pandemic.
Steve Fennessy: Problem solved then, right?
Brian Goldstone: One would think. Now, the problem is that that money has not actually reached renters. The rollout of this rental relief program across the country has been a disaster. And some states, even as the moratorium was expiring over the weekend, still hadn't doled out a single dollar to renters in need.
Steve Fennessy: Why?
Brian Goldstone: The federal government really left it up to each state and city and locality to come up with their own implementation plans, how they were going to get this money out.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We need governors and municipalities to get emergency rental assistance funds out. That is what the point of this moratorium is, is to buy time.
Brian Goldstone: There were just tons and tons of hurdles. Everything from localities not having the infrastructural capacity to actually deliver this money, to just really onerous requirements the tenants in need had to — to meet in order to get this aid. It really just runs the gamut. And that in itself is just absolutely ludicrous because having an eviction filed against you, it really destroys, in many cases, your prospects of renting another home in the future.
Steve Fennessy: Brian, you're at work on a book about the face of homelessness in America. What prompted your interest in this issue to begin with?
Brian Goldstone: Well, I live here in Atlanta and I've been curious about the rise in homelessness, why it seems to be such an intractable sort of feature of urban and increasingly suburban life in this country. But my interest was really piqued when my wife — who is a nurse practitioner — she was working at a community health center here in Atlanta called Mercy Care in the HIV clinic. And she was just struck by the number of patients who told her that they were working full-time jobs and some case two jobs and were still experiencing homelessness. But that observation that my wife shared with me led me to ask how many people in the city and in this country are working and are homeless despite that fact.
Steve Fennessy: And that journey led you to a really riveting story that appeared in The New Republic back in the summer of 2009 headlined “The New American Homeless.” Tell us briefly about what that story revealed.
Brian Goldstone: The case that I looked at in that story, this family who had been paying their rent. You know, were really ideal tenants in many ways. It was a single mother who worked as a home health aide and she and her children were renting an apartment in a neighborhood called Peoplestown. And the landlord just decided that with this neighborhood coming up, she was going to not renew this family's lease. And that set off as a sort of domino effect where, several months later, they were they were homeless. So in this case, it really was a kind of housing insecurity fueled by the gentrification this part of the city was experiencing.
Steve Fennessy: And I think one of the things that was most striking about that story was it contradicted what I think are many perceptions about homeless, that they're necessarily sleeping in tents, you know, or living under — under some overpass. But what is different about homelessness that maybe we don't think about now?
Brian Goldstone: One of the really revealing things to me about this family's situation was that they are not this bizarre anomaly. They are actually representative of the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in America today. For years, the federal government through HUD, has mandated that cities conduct what's called a point in time count and that point in time count on a single night every year. In January, people fanned out around the city and count those who are visibly homeless. That count is then used to allocate funding. And it's usually what drives kind of the narrative around homelessness in America based on what that point in time count discovers. Now, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, they decided to employ a more expansive methodology where they counted not just people who were visible on the streets, but families who were doubled up with others who were living in hotels, who were living in cars. And what they found in Chicago that year was that there were 82,212 people experiencing homelessness versus the 6,786 that the point in time count had had documented. So that was 12 times the official number. Unfortunately, in Georgia there has been no comparable attempt to to chart the discrepancy between the official number and the actual number. The Department of Education conducts their own count of schoolchildren in the state who are experiencing homelessness. And here in Georgia, as of the 2016-2017 school year, there were 38,336 children experiencing homelessness in the state, whereas the point in time count that year counted 3,716 people total, including children. So there's a huge, huge chasm between what is actually happening on the ground where homelessness is concerned and what the government is counting as homeless.
Steve Fennessy: So layer into all of that a global pandemic. Take us back then to the first quarter or so of 2020. What what effect did that have on this growing number of people who are experiencing homelessness?
Brian Goldstone: I'll just tell you about Vanessa, one of the mothers who I've been following in the reporting for my book. I began following her just after the pandemic started. She had been just really struggling to find her financial footing. When the pandemic started, she was working as a home health aide and had to quit that job when her children's school and day care closed. She was then evicted from the extended stay hotel that they had been living in. That's around the time that I met her and they began staying in their car. Vanessa got a job driving for DoorDash and, with her four children in the back seat, drove seven days a week, sometimes 10, 11 hours a day. She had her children, she taught them how to pee and — in bottles, and she just did whatever she had to do to — to survive.
Steve Fennessy: Where do they stay, if not in the extended stay hotel?
Brian Goldstone: Well, after that period of staying in her car, she was finally able to get help through a local agency here in Atlanta called Nicolas House. And Nicolas House approved her for a program called Homeless to Homes, where they would — if she could find a landlord who would rent to her, Nicolas House would subsidize her rent for six months. They would pay a portion of her monthly rent to make it more affordable for her. So that was really a godsend.
Steve Fennessy: Well, what about the federal aid? Congress allocated $45 billion? Is somebody like Vanessa eligible for that?
Brian Goldstone: It has not been given to people in hotels. They're — they’re actually barred from, in many places, from receiving aid if you're staying in a hotel. So there's a huge population of people in hotels who are just kind of left to fend for themselves. Once Vanessa did eventually get into an apartment and quickly received an eviction notice because she — her kids were still out of school, she still didn't have child care — once she got that eviction notice, she immediately applied for assistance in Fulton County. And that was back in March. She's still waiting to receive help today.
Steve Fennessy: Next, we hear more about Vanessa's efforts to access stable housing and why states have been so slow to distribute federal pandemic rental assistance. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm speaking with Brian Goldstone, an Atlanta-based journalist who's writing a book on the rise in homelessness and housing insecurity in the United States.
And so now we have this moratorium that was implemented by the CDC. What are you hearing from people like Vanessa and other families who might have been getting some brief respite from — from having to pay their rent?
Brian Goldstone: I think what's been so harrowing is to hear in people's voices the sheer panic and fear and desperation that they are living with right now. And they have no idea where they're going to go next.
Steve Fennessy: In the meantime, [is she] still delivering food with DoorDash with her kids in the car?
Brian Goldstone: I think this says a lot about the relationship between the nature of the gig labor economy today and housing and security. Vanessa, despite teaching her kids how to pee in bottles in order to not deliver orders late, was still fired from DoorDash because too many customers complained that she was late in delivering their food.
Steve Fennessy: And she's got four kids.
Brian Goldstone: She has four kids. She's been able to pick up various jobs since then, none of them offering the kind of security that she would need to truly have an income that would — that would bring stability to her life. The truly maddening part of all of this is that the money is there. Billions and billions of dollars have been allocated and it's just sitting there. And that money could be used to to pay Vanessa's rent and to pay the rent of everyone who is facing eviction right now. And the fact that that money hasn't reached the landlords is just an unspeakable scandal in my view.
Steve Fennessy: So where's the bottleneck?
[News Tape] NPR: In many parts of the country, many of the programs to distribute that federal money have run into big problems. Many states and counties had to set them up from scratch. They've been overwhelmed with people applying: Some of the portals crashed or they even got hacked.
Brian Goldstone: Why hasn't this money reached people? It's just waiting. She emails them, she calls them, and in many cases doesn't receive a reply back or she's told to just keep waiting. So we don't know, even if we've been able to get the paperwork together who have been able to prove that they were affected by the pandemic — which is not an easy thing to prove, by the way. You have to show pay stubs and all sorts of things. But even for someone who gave all that documentation, the support still isn't there. We are going to see a spike like we've never seen in homelessness if something isn't done and there's just no words for the damage that this is going to cause.
Steve Fennessy: I want to make sure I understand this because Congress allocated more than $45 billion. But this money isn't doled out by the feds. It's instead given in lump sums to various states and municipalities. Is that right? And then it's up to them to — to — to dole it out?
Brian Goldstone: Let's use DeKalb County as an example. I live in DeKalb County and two of the families that that I'm writing about in my book, they live in DeKalb County. So DeKalb came up with their own rules for how this money was going to be distributed. And DeKalb decided that in order to serve as many people as possible, they were going to limit the amount of money that they would give to each person. DeKalb said we're only going to give 60% of what someone owes in back rent, that's how much we're going to pay, and the renter will be responsible for the remaining 40%. The only thing is, in order for that money to be distributed, the landlord has to agree I'm only going to take 60%. If the renter can't come up with the difference, then the landlord has the choice of of refusing that money, unlike some municipalities and cities and states that have said we're just going to give this money directly to the renter, we're going to make this as efficient as possible. DeKalb said we're not going to give this money out unless the landlord agrees to take it. So families here in DeKalb are being evicted even though they got approved for assistance. That's just one example of the kind of hurdles that have been needlessly thrown in the way of people getting help.
[News Tape] NPR: The county is suddenly making some big changes. A county judge just put in place an emergency two-month local eviction ban.
DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Michael Thurmond: This is a godsend, really, for tenants.
[News Tape] NPR: Michael Thurmond is the county's top elected official and he's announcing another big change.
Michael Thurmond: Landlords will be receiving an increased amount of revenue to cover back rent.
Steve Fennessy: There's still a lot of hoops you have to jump through, right, to get someone evicted. What does it take?
Brian Goldstone: Once a renter gets an eviction notice, they have the opportunity to, what's called here in Georgia, answer that notice. If they say there's a reason why they shouldn't be evicted, then they will have an opportunity to go before a judge. If they don't answer the eviction, that order to evict them, to have the marshal or the sheriff's deputy come out and — and remove them from their home can happen very, very quickly. So some of this depends on — on whether a renter knows their rights a lot, depends on whether they have legal representation. And we know that the vast majority of renters don't have representation. So there are certain things that can hold the process up. And of course, these eviction notices that have been going out to renters even during the pandemic have been kind of piling up in court. There is kind of a traffic jam at this point, and there is a lot of uncertainty about the precise number of people who will actually lose their homes. We know that a lot of people faced with eviction don't even wait for the notice to arrive. They move out on their own. But there's just no way that these hundreds of thousands of families here in Georgia and millions across the country are going to be able to stay in their homes.
Steve Fennessy: You've been researching this long before the pandemic and now we have the pandemic. What has that experience of the pandemic revealed to you about housing precarity in the U.S. and where it's headed?
Brian Goldstone: Before COVID-19 upended all of our lives, there was already a housing catastrophe in the U.S.
[News Tape] The New Republic: Today, there is not a single county in the United States where someone making minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. In Atlanta, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition's annual Out of Reach report, the housing wage needed to pay for a modest two-bedroom unit is $21.27 an hour. Georgia's minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.
Brian Goldstone: That was before the pandemic. Everyone who isn't making $22.79 an hour is susceptible to being priced out of housing for themselves and their families. So this was an epidemic that COVID has really just amplified. It's intense. It's brought more attention to it. But millions of people were being evicted from their homes before COVID. Millions of people were afraid that come tomorrow they wouldn't have a place to live. So I think if it's revealed anything to me, it's just that as a country, we have failed miserably at providing for this most basic human need. I believe that until we have a radical paradigm shift around what housing means and — and whether it is a kind of basic right, no less vital or essential than education or food or medicine, that until we have that paradigm shift where we're going to continue to see the kind of crisis that really existed, you know, long before this pandemic began.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Brian Goldstone. Even as the Biden administration's new temporary eviction order rolls out, the National Apartment Association, whose members control around 10 million rental units in the country, is already suing the federal government, demanding nearly $27 billion in rent that has gone unpaid during the moratorium.
[News Tape] 13WMAZ: Jesse Clarke is one landlord who tried to file but was stopped by the CDC's moratorium.
Jesse Clark: It's very painful for landlords.
[News Tape] 13WMAZ: He says after two years his tenant stopped paying rent almost the very moment the moratorium was passed. And without the right to evict, he's at a complete loss.
Jesse Clark: The CDC is overstepping their guidelines on the 5th and 14th Amendment. It is a private contract between tenant and landlord, and they have no right to step in and tell them that we do not have a right to collect payment or eviction.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.