For more than a year, Atlanta renters have dreaded the crash of what Terri Lee, the city’s chief housing officer, called a “tsunami” of evictions — a tidal wave of displacement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, it seems that wave is cresting, as the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s nationwide ban on evictions, effectively killing the most powerful tool against displacement that people financially throttled by the public health crisis had relied on.

As courts resume — or ramp up — eviction proceedings, experts say the results could be catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of Georgia renters could now be at risk of eviction. Nearly a fifth of metro Atlanta tenants owe back rent, and those with arrears are behind by an average of $3,891, according to a New York Times analysis. 

John Gainey, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid Society, told Atlanta Civic Circle that his organization is “extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court has protected the monetary interests of landlords over the health of individuals and communities at a time when COVID-19 transmission rates and COVID-related deaths are dangerously high.”

The eviction ban, after all, was fought tooth and nail by a coalition of landlords and real estate groups from Georgia and Alabama. 

Representatives with the Georgia Apartment Association (GAA) and its affiliate the Atlanta Apartment Association AAA), who were not directly involved in the case, did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment, although AAA spokeswoman Kendall Bagley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had “overstepped its authority in issuing the sweeping federal eviction moratorium without regard for how the residents ‘protected’ by the moratorium would be provided for financially, and then dragged its feet on ending it, instead repeatedly pushing it back one month after another.” 

“The unfortunate result,” she added, “is renters facing insurmountable debt and rental housing providers struggling to provide safe, sustainable and affordable housing. Small mom-and-pop landlords have been among the hardest hit.”

Gainey, the Legal Aid lawyer, said the court’s decision “will lead to a wave of unnecessary evictions at a time when rental assistance is still making its way to landlords” and “will likely create a wave of mass homelessness and increase the spread of COVID-19 among shelters and vulnerable populations.”

Many metro Atlanta courts, Gainey said, have been sitting on “stacks of [eviction] orders where a tenant is only protected until this moratorium expires.” 

The ban, though, wasn’t supposed to expire until Oct. 3, and Thursday’s ruling has sent people like Gainey, who helps fight evictions in court for marginalized metro Atlantans, and others scrambling to brace for the blowback.

Cathryn Marchman, chief executive for Partners for HOME, which provides homeless outreach services for the City of Atlanta, said her organization is “infusing new resources into diversion to assist families with support services, such as limited financial assistance to avoid entering shelters.”

She told Atlanta Civic Circle she doesn’t expect “an immediate flood” of people becoming homeless “because evictions do not necessarily lead to immediate homelessness.” Still, this is certainly an all-hands-on-deck moment for her.

And though some people who are ultimately evicted won’t be thrust into homelessness, many will be struggling to secure stable housing.

Eugene Jones, CEO of Atlanta Housing (AH), said the city’s public housing authority is gearing up for an explosion in demand for its services. Earlier this year, Jones told Atlanta Civic Circle that nearly 25,000 people were on a waitlist for AH assistance. That number is about to spike, he said.

“We will work with the city and our housing partners to assist wherever we can,” Jones said.

The federal moratorium, however, wasn’t the only shield against the long-anticipated swell of evictions. The federal government has provided state and local governments billions of dollars for emergency housing assistance programs. The trick, though, is distributing the money timely. 

“At this point, Georgia has only spent about 3 percent of the rental assistance it was allocated — the vast majority of which is headed directly to landlords,” Gainey said. 

The Georgia Department of Community affairs (DCA), which is charged with allocating much of that money, just expanded its rental assistance program so that funds can be used to bring past-due rent and utility payments current up to 18 months. 

But more must be done, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).

“The Biden administration must immediately take every possible action to protect renters,” an NLIHC call-to-action said. “HUD should implement an eviction moratorium for renters living in all federally assisted properties, and [the Federal Housing Finance Agency] should consider a moratorium for properties with a federally backed mortgage. 

“The Department of Justice should direct courts to stop evictions for renters applying for [emergency rental assistance] and urge courts to work with ERA programs to prioritize aid for those renters most at risk, and the Treasury Department should continue to eliminate barriers that prevent ERA programs from serving households in need,” the message continued.

NLIHC leaders also want state and local officials to enact their own eviction moratoria, expedite the disbursal of emergency rental assistance funds by removing cumbersome red tape and install other tenant protections, “such as right to counsel, expungement of eviction records and just-cause eviction standards.”

Today, DeKalb County is the only metro Atlanta government that has effected its own eviction freeze, and that’s largely because a cyberattack crippled the county’s emergency housing assistance program and officials needed time to catch up on processing paperwork. 

Atlanta Civic Circle reached out to DeKalb and Fulton counties and the City of Atlanta to ask what they’re doing to stem the impact of the federal eviction moratorium’s demise, and this story will be updated as plans are provided.

If you or someone you know is at risk of displacement due to the Supreme Court’s decision, visit the Georgia DCA site to learn about your options, and feel free to tell Atlanta Civic Circle about your experience by emailing sean@atlantaciviccircle.org.

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