Bemoaning the bureaucratic roadblocks encumbering DeKalb County’s emergency rental assistance program, a man who leases out just a single home in the community said Thursday, “I’m never going to be a landlord again when this is all done.”
During a virtual town hall meeting hosted by County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, this landlord and others, as well as tenants struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic, lamented burdensome red tape and complex lessor-lessee friction that are separating people in need from crucial government funding.
To date, DeKalb officials have disseminated almost $8 million of the $21 million initially allocated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and renters and landlords are aching for fast cash, lest they be evicted or foreclosed upon.
The aforementioned landlord, who said he’s been denied possession of his property for a year and a half, asked Davis Johnson and other county officials on Thursday, “Have you given enough thought to how you are devastating the one- and two-home landlords?”
He’s nodding not only to a rental assistance program that, like many across the country, is inundated with applications for government money but also to the eviction moratorium DeKalb’s Chief Magistrate Court Judge Asha Jackson enacted in the wake of a cyberattack that in March throttled the program when people were scrambling for financial help.
Jackson estimated in June that renters across the county owed a total of some $50 million in back rent, so the heat is on to keep renters at home and landlords paid.
Another landlord on Thursday complained that, when his tenant abruptly stopped paying rent, he attempted to apply for assistance from DeKalb’s Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition (TLAC) program, “but there’s a backlog” with processing applications.
“If I can’t pay my mortgage, I’m going to lose this house,” the landlord said. He’s one of many who during the town hall said he’s been waiting months for his application to move forward.
In theory, the process of procuring TLAC funds is simple, but it requires all parties involved to be forthright and proactive about filing documents illustrating a COVID-19-related need for government money and outlining the nature of the various landlord-tenant relationships.
“It’s very important that you provide all of your documentation at one time, and that will speed up the process of your case,” Javoyne Hicks, clerk of DeKalb’s state and magistrate courts, said during the town hall.
If neither the landlord nor the tenant has legal representation, Hicks explained, “the cases go to the mediators, the mediators will set up a time to bring in the tenant and the landlord, and they will discuss what is owed and reach an agreement on the amounts owed.”
Once a consent agreement is reached, it’s reviewed by a judge. If the judge signs off on the deal, she said, “we try to get the money out the door within 10 days.”
In many cases, though, there’s a snag in the process: Sometimes, the tenant refuses to participate. Other times, the landlord does.
One landlord said a judge had granted a writ of eviction, but the county’s eviction ban seemed to be holding up the process of getting a sheriff to move the renter out.
When she tried to bring paperwork directly to the tenant, she said, “the tenant asked me to leave my own house.”
“They can afford it,” she said of the tenant, “but they were told by their friends that they do not have to pay rent.”
At that point, DeKalb’s chief operating officer Zach Williams said at the forum, the property owner “can exercise your legal rights as a landlord.” He meant it might be time to sue.
Tenants, too, have difficulty wrangling paperwork from their landlords.
When one renter asked Williams what to do, since “it’s difficult to get information from my landlord,” the COO said, “We cannot make the landlord participate.”
In that kind of scenario, renters might be best off seeking a new place to live and applying for future rent assistance, as the county’s program offers up to three months of advance rent payments.
With some renters and property owners awaiting word on assistance money they requested back in February when the TLAC debuted, housing experts and legal professionals say it’s time to cut even more red tape.
After the Treasury Department in August relaxed documentation requirements that had been hampering emergency rental assistance programs nationwide, DeKalb began accepting self-attestations from applicants.
“If you do not have those documents, you may self-attest” using forms available on the TLAC website, Hicks said. “You can fill them out to say, ‘I cannot find the documents, but I am telling you, under penalty of perjury,’ if you sign these documents, ‘ this is my income at this time,’ and we will accept that declaration.”
But expediting beleaguered programs like DeKalb’s could demand further easing of restrictions.
Officials in Santa Fe, N.M., architected a solution that gets money to residents in need much faster than most of the rent relief programs across the country.
Instead of demanding renters produce reams of paperwork proving their financial and housing hardships, and rather than paying landlords and utility companies on behalf of tenants, Santa Fe’s CONNECT program simply deposits 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.
Putting money directly into the hands of the people who need it, the logic goes, circumvents the roadblocks that governments like DeKalb’s are stumbling over.
DeKalb is so swamped with calls from people applying to the TLAC program or seeking updates on their requests that, some renters and landlords complained on Thursday, some people are just placed on indefinite holds.
Hicks said she was “definitely not aware that there’s not answers to the phones, since we have agents that are answering the phones all day long,” but that agents were listening in at the town hall and would follow-up with people having trouble accessing help.
Do you think simplifying the process and trusting people in need with public funds would streamline these rental assistance programs and better protect renters and landlords? Sound off in the comments.
If you or someone you know is experiencing trouble with DeKalb’s TLAC program or any other emergency housing assistance program in metro Atlanta, tell Atlanta Civic Circle about it by emailing email@example.com.
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