GA Emergency Rental Assistance Programs: Policy Recommendations to Disperse Federal Funds Quickly and Efficiently to Prevent Evictions and Keep Georgians Stably Housed

by Freyja Brandel-Tanis, Adriana Colon Adorno, Bianca Mers & Grace Roth

October, 2021

Introduction
Millions of Americans are on the verge of eviction due to hardships caused by the COVID-19  pandemic. Without the protections from the CDC evictions moratorium, many are looking to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to provide payment on back-owed rent and utilities and keep them in their homes. However, despite nearly $50 billion in allocated resources, disbursement rates have varied wildly across the country. As of September 15, Georgia had distributed less than 5% of the more than $550 million received for rental assistance (Keenan, 2021). This means Georgia has the money to help
prevent evictions but isn’t using it.

ERAP is composed of two separate programs: ERA1, which was enacted on December 27, 2020, and provides up to $25 billion, and ERA2, enacted on March 11, 2021, and provides up to $21.55 billion. The procedures of ERA1 are generally considered more burdensome, having stricter requirements for proof of eligibility and more limitations on the amount and method of rental assistance disbursement. The US Department of the Treasury has continued to release statements and guidelines that encourage fewer restrictions to make these funds more immediately available (U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2021).

Background

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) is the state authority tasked with dispersing ERA funds for most of Georgia. The program began in early March 2021 and is currently accepting applications. DCA primarily relies on the more laborious criteria and processes laid out in ERA1. This includes limited tenant eligibility, payments only made directly to landlords or utility companies, support for a maximum of 12 months (some exceptions for up to 15 months), and lengthy lists of required documentation, notably for tenant applicants (Georgia Department of Community Affairs, n.d.). However, despite being the primary agent for ERAP funds, the procedures outlined by DCA are not universally followed across the state.

DCA is not the only authority in Georgia with the ability to disperse ERAP funds. Cities and counties with populations over 200,000 people, including the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, and Chatham County (Savannah), have received their own ERAP allocations and can determine their own eligibility criteria and processes (Georgia Department of Community Affairs, n.d.). For example, Fulton County maintains the eligibility requirements from ERA1 but has expanded support to a maximum of 18
months, which is an addition from ERA2 (Fulton County, 2021). This indicates a precedent in Georgia for local municipalities to relax the requirements of ERA1 in favor of new guidelines under ERA2 to meet the needs of their constituents. DCA should modify their current eligibility and disbursement processes to disburse ERA funds more effectively to Georgians and mitigate the effects of the looming evictions crisis.

Policy Recommendations
Our vibrant, growing state has at least 400,000 people who need help and need it fast (NHLIC 2020). In order to help the most people as efficiently and as equitably as possible, policies need to get money into people’s pockets and emphasize flexibility, trust of users, and ease of accessibility.

Tier 1 – High Priority Policies
These policies afford renters the most flexibility and disperse money quickly and efficiently – preventing evictions and keeping Georgians in their homes.

  1. Self-attestation
    Unnecessarily complicated application processes for ERA present a significant barrier to accessibility and efficient distribution of funds to tenants. It is evident that simplifying the application process is feasible, as the process is already streamlined for landlords: landlords are required to submit a shorter application and less documentation to receive assistance funds (Georgia Department of Community Affairs, n.d.). Although the Georgia DCA allegedly allows self-attestation, in which tenants are trusted to honestly report their financial hardships without documentation, there is no mention of this procedure on the DCA website, thus making it inaccessible to tenants. In addition to formalizing this self-attestation process within its ERA procedure, DCA should also clearly and broadly communicate this route to tenants in need. States such as Washington and Wyoming provide great examples of simplified self-attestation processes in which tenants simply fill out an application with their basic information and a short narrative to explain their situation (Washington State Department of Commerce, n.d. and Wyoming Department of Family Services, n.d.).
  1. Direct-to-Tenant Cash Assistance
    If the goal of Georgia’s ERAP policies is to prevent evictions and keep people stably housed direct-to-tenant assistance is the best way to do that. Requiring renters to go through their landlords adds another time-consuming administrative obstacle. The requirement of ERA1 for programs to make 3 attempts to contact the landlord for participation and at least 1 attempt through mail resulted in processing delays of 10-14 days – two weeks that could make the difference between staying housed or being evicted, especially when the eviction process moves so quickly in Georgia (Foley 2021). Additionally, there are many costs associated with housing other than rent – utilities, various administrative fees, deposits, early lease termination for folks who need to leave due to sexual or domestic violence, and countless others. Direct-to-tenant assistance provides flexibility for people to make their own decisions about their personal needs. Direct-to-tenant assistance can also help the many people who rent under informal leases, a population which is predominantly lower income folks, people of color, and those with disabilities. Direct-to-tenant assistance has been successful in distributing ERA funds quickly and can allow nonprofit organizations to target those most at risk; for example, Chainbreaker Collective, a social and environmental justice organization, mobilized in Santa Fe New Mexico to quickly distribute $6 million in rental relief to families at risk of eviction (Ludwig 2021). Low-barrier access means more people get help, so we recommend that DCA and other Georgia agencies provide direct-to-tenant assistance outright to allow Georgia renters the flexibility and agency to meet their most urgent housing needs. While critics might argue that some might “take advantage” of the more flexible distribution, research consistently shows that people in poverty who receive aid without conditions spend it on things they need (see: the New Leaf Project, Kellogg Insight Report Here’s How Americans Are Spending Their Stimulus Checks, Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration).

Tier 2 – Secondary Priority Policies
If the high priority policies are not possible, the following policies allow for faster distribution with less administrative time and effort. Additionally, they encourage more people to participate – keeping more Georgians stably housed.

  1. Qualified by proxy
    Qualified Census Tracts (QCTs) are defined as census tracts where “50 percent of households with incomes below 60 percent of the Area Median Gross Income (AMGI) or have a poverty rate of 25 percent or more” (view portal here). Because of the characteristics of these areas, QCTs could be used to as a fact-specific proxy, which reduce the amount of required documentation for ERA-fund approval (U.S. Department of Treasury, 2021). A similar process has been done in the state of Virginia, which has a list of 500 pre-qualified zip codes.Applying this fact-specific proxy to Georgia, data from the API provided by Dr. Elora Raymond was analyzed to determine the efficacy of prequalifying tenants for ERA based on residence in (QCT). By comparing the number of evictions within and outside of QCTs, the goal is to provide justification for using pre-qualified census tracts to disperse ERA funds effectively. The counties of interest include the Metro Atlanta area (Clayton, DeKalb, Henry, Gwinnett, Fulton, and Cobb Counties) and Macon (Bibb County).

    Table 1: Evictions in qualified census tracts
    Table 1: Evictions in qualified census tracts

    In general, qualifying tenants based on QCTs is an effective way to target those areas with a higher rate of evictions. While the majority of evictions occur outside of QCTs, which only make up about a quarter of the census tracts and a quarter of the population. However, as shown in Table 1, QCTs contain over a third of the rental units and have almost double the number of median evictions per census tract. This suggests that these QCTs have a higher proportion of renters and are experiencing more evictions per census tract. Table 2 affirms these findings, showing that while 26.82% of census tracts are QCT, they account for 39.14% of the evictions, indicating that QCTs are experiencing higher rates of eviction than non-QCTs. As such, while pre-qualifying QCTs may not address the largest number of evictions, it will assist areas with a higher proportion of evictions.

  2. Categorical eligibility
    As demonstrated by strategies used in several other states, existing social programs can be used to automatically qualify tenants for rental assistance funds. Virginia and Texas, for example, allow people in need to demonstrate income eligibility by submitting a qualification letter from means-tested federal subsidy programs such as: Head Start, the Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program (CEAP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Tribal TANF program, Veteran Affairs Disability Pension, Survivor Pension, Enhanced Survivor Benefits or Section 306 disability pension, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program (Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, 2021). This not only makes the distribution of ERAP funds more efficient but also saves tenants the burden of being repeatedly required to prove income. Better yet, DCA and Georgia municipal governments could directly exchange data with these federal programs to qualify tenants instead of requiring them to provide documents.3. Direct-to-Tenant Assistance Upon Landlord Refusal
    While ERA1 programs are permitted to provide direct-to-tenant payments when landlords or utility companies refuse to participate, ERA2 programs are mandated to provide direct-to-tenant assistance upon landlord refusal. The U.S. Treasury stated, “It is unacceptable to allow Americans to suffer eviction or homelessness simply because some landlords are turning down Federal aid on their behalf” (2021).While landlords have their own reasons for choosing not to participate, the consequences felt by renters are very real. Allegheny County noted that in their efforts to distribute 2020 CARES Rent Relief assistance, they had to turn away 10% of applications because landlords refused to participate, and many renters didn’t even apply because their landlords publicized their refusal to take part in the program. While ERA2 funds are now required to be available to renters even if their landlords won’t participate, the policy recommendation now is to make concerted efforts to publicize and spread this information. According to a NIHLC report, “Nearly three-quarters of programs still do not explicitly acknowledge the allowance of direct-to-tenant payments in their public-facing documents despite Treasury guidance encouraging, and in the case of ERA2 requiring, them to do so” (Foley 2021). Because the ERA guidance has changed from the first iteration to the second, it is vital that DCA and other agencies publicize this information and try to reach as many people as possible, especially those who know their landlords wouldn’t participate and might still think that this relief is unavailable to them.We recommend DCA update all applicable web pages with this information and engage in a campaign to mail flyers and/or make calls to targeted areas at high risk of eviction with the information that renters can receive assistance without needing landlord participation.

Takeaways

The COVID-19 pandemic and continuing housing crisis is one of the most important issues that Georgia faces. It is well documented that stable housing provides more opportunities for children, increases the health of families, and encourages community, while evictions and homelessness cause severe mental, physical, and financial stress on families. In order to literally save lives, DCA and other Georgia agencies must work to make ERA funds available and flexible to people in Georgia.

Footnotes

  1. Eviction statistics are from Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fulton, Cobb, and Bibb Counties in Georgia with addresses present, latitude and longitude coordinates within county borders, and filing dates between December 26, 2018 and September 25, 2021.

Works Cited

Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. (n.d.). Fact Specific Proxy Zip Codes. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
https://dhcd.virginia.gov/sites/default/files/Docx/rmrp/fact-specific-proxy-zip-codes.pdf

Foley, E. (2021, July 19). Direct-To-Tenant Payment Implementation: Increasing Flexibility and Equity in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs. National Low Income Housing Coalition. https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/Direct-To-Tenant.pdf

Fulton County. (2021, August 25). COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance. Fulton County. https://www.fultoncountyga.gov/renthelp

Georgia Department of Community Affairs. (n.d.). The State of Georgia Rental Assistance Program—Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
https://georgiarentalassistance.ga.gov/faq

Keenan, S. (2021, September 15). Could Congress help Georgia, metro Atlanta disburse rental assistance cash faster? Atlanta Civic Circle. https://atlantaciviccircle.org/2021/09/15/could-congress-help-georgia-metro-atlanta-disburse-rental-assistance-cash-faster/

Ludwig, M. (2021, August 13). Renters Are Calling for Direct Cash Assistance as Evictions Loom. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/renters-are-calling-for-direct-cash-assistance-as-evictions-loom/

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. (2021). Texas Rent Relief. Texas Rent Relief. https://texasrentrelief.com/

U.S. Department of the Treasury. (2021). Emergency Rental Assistance Frequently Asked Questions – Revised August 25, 2021. https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/136/ERA-FAQ-8-25-2021.pdf

Washington State Department of Commerce. (n.d.). Treasury Rent Assistance Program (T-RAP). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.commerce.wa.gov/serving-
communities/homelessness/eviction-rent-assistance-program/

Wyoming Department of Family Services. (n.d.) Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://dfs.wyo.gov/assistance-programs/home-utilities-energy-assistance/emergency-rental-assistance-program-erap/

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