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A flood of applicants scrambling for housing assistance amid the pandemic seems to be overwhelming the government programs that distribute the money.

“Some jurisdictions, of course, have just cut off their [online] portal processes while they process applications that are already in,” said David Whisnant, housing director at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which is helping administer federal funds for emergency housing assistance, during Wednesday’s Atlanta Regional Housing Forum webinar.

The City of Atlanta, for instance, launched its $22 million emergency housing assistance program in August, allowing households financially burdened by the public health crisis to apply for thousands of dollars to help with rent, utilities and other housing-related costs. The city, working in concert with United Way of Greater Atlanta, received more than 20,000 applications. By mid-December, officials were forced to close the online application portal so they could digest the mountain of paperwork. 

Fulton County, which launched its $18 million housing assistance program — for which Atlantans are not eligible — at the beginning of March, shuttered its application portal about two weeks after its debut, according to Anna Roach, the county’s chief operating officer.

“By March 15, we had received over 15,500 applications into our portal, which was a call on approximately $55 million worth of funding,” Roach said during the webinar. “It made absolutely no sense whatsoever for us to continue to allow people to apply for funding when we knew that, at some point, we would reach our $18 million threshold and ultimately have to say no anyway.”

Fulton officials are still wading through all those applications. “We doubled down on adjudication,” Roach said, noting the county had contracted with out-of-state firms to help sift through it all more efficiently.

Roach added that the county is banking on additional federal funding coming in to further lighten the load for struggling renters and landlords who filed applications for help soon after the program was announced. “We look forward to additional funding coming from the federal government, in hopes that we’ll be able to address all the need within the first tranche of applications we received,” she said.

It’s unclear when Fulton might reopen its application portal — and if that might have to wait until Congress approves of more money to be used for housing assistance — but Atlanta’s portal, officials have told Atlanta Civic Circle, is slated to go back online later this month.

Atlanta’s deluge of appeals for housing assistance money can be attributed in large part to ineligible applicants. “About 75 percent of those were out of the jurisdiction,” United Way 2-1-1 director Donna Burnham said during Wednesday’s webinar, but the city didn’t have any trouble spending all the money. 

Burnham said the city, with United Way’s help, had distributed some $18 million to people in need. (The rest of the $22 million went toward administrative costs, United Way spokesman Chad Parker told Atlanta Civic Circle.) That amount reportedly helped roughly 6,000 households, and more is on the way. 

Parker added, once Atlanta starts accepting applications again, the fund will be flush with about $12.2 million in new federal money. Burnham said that could translate to another 4,000 families helped. An exact date for the portal’s reopening, though, has not yet been announced. 

The Fulton and Atlanta governments’ experience with the onslaught of applications could also be the harbinger for what’s to come in neighboring communities. 

Last week, for example, Cobb County began taking applications for its $22.8 million rental assistance program. County officials have not yet said how many applications they’ve fielded in the first week of the operation, although, if their metro area government peers’ experience is any indication, they could be in for a serious journey through forests of documents. 

The same could go for Gwinnett County, which is projected to kick off its $28.1 million housing assistance program in late April. 

State officials on Wednesday, though, said that if and when these local wells run dry, the people aching for housing assistance won’t be without options. Whisnant, as well as DCA Commissioner Christopher Nunn, said folks in need can reach out to Georgia’s community affairs office for help

Nunn said he’ll know the DCA’s efforts have been a success “when every Georgian who has a Covid-related rental assistance need is served.”

Click here to watch the latest Atlanta Regional Housing Forum webinar, and be sure to join in the small-group discussions on April 21 to continue the conversation on how to weather the housing storm spurred by the pandemic.

(Header image: Jimmy Chang, via Unsplash)

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