Many emergency rental assistance programs pay landlords on behalf of struggling tenants. If someone’s behind on rent, utility bills or other housing-related expenses, their respective city, county or state will write a check — usually with federal funds — directly to the party that’s owed. 

In Santa Fe, N.M., though, officials have afforded their residents who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic a greater degree of trust. They are free to spend their assistance money as they see fit. 

Should metro Atlanta governments follow suit? 

Santa Fe’s CONNECT program deposits public money directly into the bank accounts of residents “who did not receive a federal stimulus check or unemployment [benefits],” people whose places of work shuttered due to the pandemic and those who are “at risk of eviction because they have been unable to pay rent due to the economic impacts of COVID,” a city announcement says. 

“It is about putting money in the hands of people and letting them use it as they need it,” Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said during a webinar last week, later adding, “The fastest way to help people is to provide direct cash assistance.”

A main thrust of the mission is to offset the often sluggish distribution of government funds by eliminating cumbersome red tape. After all, Webber said, what are these folks to do if they need help not just with paying rent and utility bills, but also buying groceries or gas or other necessities?

Elora Raymond, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, told Atlanta Civic Circle that many local jurisdictions, when administering rental assistance programs, “are putting more barriers in place than the Treasury [Department] requires.”

Raymond also rejected the fallacy that lower-income households have a tendency to misuse government benefits. “Research shows direct cash transfers to poor households are used wisely and are very effective at combating poverty and improving an array of outcomes,” she said, “but there’s a misconception that it will just go towards addictions or other socially undesirable activities, and I think that is just a stereotype.”

The fact that so many government rent relief programs will offer money directly to landlords and utilities, but not to residents, Raymond continued, “is evidence of derogatory attitudes towards the poor.”

“Local jurisdictions should offer 100 percent of rent, allow self-certification by tenants, as recommended by Treasury, instead of requiring paperwork tenants may not have [and] give assistance money to tenants if landlords turn it down, so that tenants can pay down their rent debt and secure new housing,” she said.

Multiple public officials and a landlords organization have not replied to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment, and this story will be updated as responses are provided.

Do you think metro Atlanta residents could benefit from direct cash assistance rather than having to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to secure government funds? Let us know by emailing sean@atlantaciviccircle.org or commenting below.

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3 Comments

  1. This is a very interesting take on how a city can test new ways of assisting residents. Cool coverage. Thanks Sean!

  2. I totally disagree. Most tenants in Atlanta would not pay back rent to their landlords. They do not pay even an amount they can afford taking full advantage of the moratorium. I do agree that local government are making it hard for landlords to claim rental assistance benefits and this should be streamlined. Provide the back rent to the landlords and any overages allowed to the tenant even if they are unable to provide the documentation. If there is a lease, pay the landlords since this is a federal eviction prevention mandate.

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