Congresswoman Cori Bush introduced legislation earlier this week that seeks to expand access to federal emergency rental assistance (ERA) money, a proposal that could ramp up the distribution of critical funding at a time when many states — including Georgia — are lagging. 

The move by the Missouri Democrat comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to kill a federal eviction moratorium that had served as the most powerful protection many Americans financially throttled by the pandemic had against displacement. 

“The Supreme Court’s failure to protect these individuals and families has only increased the urgency with which Congress must act to get emergency rental assistance to those who need it most,” Bush said in a statement. “The Emergency Rental Assistance Program Improvement Act will help make these funds more accessible by allowing individuals and families to apply for assistance at places that are central to their communities — schools, libraries, the post office, among others.”

Georgia, which has disbursed less than 5 percent of the more than $550 million the U.S. Treasury Department provided for rent relief, is in desperate need of a boost when it comes to eviction prevention, housing experts and legal professionals have told Atlanta Civic Circle

In August, the Treasury Department relaxed the cumbersome regulations that had demanded ERA applicants provide proof of their financial and housing insecurity, although few jurisdictions across Georgia have followed suit. 

“Despite guidance from Treasury that not only allows but encourages local governments to ease requirements, too many of the rental assistance programs operating in the Atlanta Metro region are still imposing onerous requirements on families in the middle of a crisis,” Michael Lucas, executive director of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), told Atlanta Civic Circle on Wednesday. 

Even the City of Atlanta, whose emergency housing assistance program AVLF is helping administer, still has “too much of a culture of compliance, instead of a culture of compassion,” Lucas said. “Right now, in what I think is a historic moment for Atlanta, we need all the compassion we can muster for our neighbors.”

Chad Parker, a spokesman for United Way of Greater Atlanta, the organization managing the city’s rent relief program, said, early on, officials “saw the need for in-person events and started organizing them at apartment complexes and at our Loudermilk Center downtown.” Those events have helped renters who might struggle with the online application portal or have other issues file the requisite paperwork.

“While we have never lacked for applications, providing more ways to access personal help is always a move in the right direction,” Parker told Atlanta Civic Circle, nodding to Bush’s proposal. 

The city has yet not loosened the requirements for documentation, although that could be on the horizon.

“We are currently working from existing funding, not the new round of funding where the revised federal guidelines apply,” Parker said.

In Fulton County, which has its own rental assistance program separate from the City of Atlanta’s, “we began to accept attestations from applicants, where needed, to help reduce the administrative burden that posed a hurdle to many applicants,” county spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt told Atlanta Civic Circle

Essentially, if a tenant can’t produce the many financial documents needed to apply for help, or if there are technological barriers keeping them from accessing the program, Fulton County will accommodate. 

Eugene Jones, CEO of Atlanta Housing (AH), told Atlanta Civic Circle that if governments running ERA programs in metro Atlanta would ease their “burdensome” restrictions, it would go a long way to helping out renters, as well as the housing authority. 

“It’s so stringent no one wanted to apply for it,” he said of the bureaucratic red tape separating people in need from vital resources. 

Roughly 25,000 people are on the waitlist for AH services, and with the federal eviction ban lifted, Jones expects that number to balloon. Making it easier to access ERA funds would take some of the weight off AH’s shoulders. 

The Atlanta Apartment Association (AAA), which represents landlords and property managers in the metro area, is working with the National Apartment Association “to advocate for Congress and the federal government to ease restrictions and further update guidance to remove roadblocks on distributing ERA finds so local and state governments can more easily provide meaningful financial assistance to those who need it,” according to AAA spokeswoman Chelsea Juras.

Bush, who said she’s been evicted before and has experienced homelessness, said, “I know the trauma these families are facing. This crisis demands compassionate solutions and I urge my colleagues to consider the humanity of our neighbors who could soon find themselves without a home unless drastic action is taken.” 

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