On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called on the nation’s legal community to help curb the “devastating” impact the “looming housing and eviction crisis” could have on Americans due to the abrupt ending of the federal eviction freeze.

“As federal and local eviction moratoriums expire around the country, eviction filings are expected to spike to roughly double their pre-pandemic levels,” Garland wrote in an open letter to attorneys around the country. 

“According to a recent Census Bureau survey,” he continued, “over six million American households report that they are behind on rent. Over three million households that are behind on rental payments believe they may be evicted in the next two months.”

Garland appealed for help connecting tenants with federal emergency rental assistance funds, called on local courts to enact eviction diversion programs and encouraged people to support legal aid organizations. 

Michael Lucas, executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, said this is an “all-hands-on-deck” moment.

“As the largest provider of pro bono legal services to low-income tenants in Fulton County, we echo this call for the private bar to step up and stand with tenants during this crisis,” Lucas told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Throughout the pandemic we have been training hundreds of volunteer lawyers to do just that — take on evictions and advise tenants of their rights.”

A statement sent out Monday by the American Bar Association reinforced Garland’s call to action, noting, “The Lawyer’s Oath provides that a lawyer shall ‘never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay any cause for lucre or malice.’ Accordingly, it is our duty and calling as lawyers and legal professionals to help prevent housing losses among struggling families and stabilize the economic interests of property owners so we can move forward as a nation and fulfill the promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”

Of course, with a crisis of this scope, the onus to prevent evictions is not wholly on the legal community; local governments must be better about distributing federal rental assistance funds. 

Georgia has been among the slowest states in the country to disburse that money, having spent only about 4 percent of the cash the federal government allocated, Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney John Gainey told Atlanta Civic Circle last week. To put that in perspective, states like Virginia and Texas have spent about half their rental assistance funds, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

No doubt, metro Atlanta governments have doled out the federal money faster than much of the state — but not fast enough, legal professionals argue.

Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid’s executive director, said governments need to “liberalize their approach to the distribution of money,” meaning they should reduce the bureaucratic red tape separating tenants from financial support. 

“It’s a real pain,” watching renters struggle to gather the proper paperwork proving their financial and housing hardships, Gottlieb told Atlanta Civic Circle.

Gottlieb added that he’d like to see local and state governments enact their own eviction moratoria, which would buy time for them to distribute federal funds to renters.

“If we aren’t under the gun, we can help keep more people from being thrown out,” he said.

Landlords, too, are on the hook to help prevent an explosion in homeless populations across the country. Some, however, are refusing federal rental assistance funds so they can more easily evict tenants, according to Elora Raymond, associate professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech.

“Landlords are turning down rental assistance, even when offered 100 percent [of the rent bill or back rent], because, during the pandemic, the relationship has soured and they just want new tenants starting fresh,” she told Atlanta Civic Circle earlier this month. “They are also turning down offers that are less than 100 percent for obvious reasons.”

She’s nodding to the landlords who see eviction as an opportunity to replace tenants with higher-paying ones.

Officials with the Atlanta Apartment Association, which represents landlords and property management businesses, declined to comment for this story, deferring to the National Apartment Association (NAA). NAA representatives did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s request for comment. 

The impact of the federal eviction moratorium’s demise remains to be seen, and housing experts’ predictions on the impending wave of displacement vary. 

A Georgia State University report that looks at how courts statewide have handled evictions during the pandemic, for instance, suggested the wave isn’t about to crash, but, rather, the tide has been rising for some time. 

“We find most courts have long since returned to ‘business as usual,’ and adaptations have either been discarded or incorporated into the eviction process (e.g., the use of online e-filing),” the study, which was published before the federal moratorium was dismantled, said. “A few counties, such as Fulton, may face a ‘wave,’ but the majority of counties have already begun to experience a resurgent tide.”

Gottlieb said there likely won’t be a single moment at which the wave crashes. Instead, the torrent of displacement will be gradual, floodlike, he said.

“I hope it won’t be a tsunami,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

If you’re at risk of eviction or struggling with housing insecurity, tell Atlanta Civic Circle your story by emailing sean@atlantaciviccircle.org

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