The head of a national nonprofit has decried the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ (DCA) Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program as “one of the worst in the country” and called for the state agency to either get its act together or let other organizations take the reins.
The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) held a rally in Atlanta on Tuesday to kick off a grassroots campaign “to support at-risk renters seeking help from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which is mismanaging the provision of Emergency Rental Assistance,” according to a press release. More than 250 tenants gathered at the government office towers neighboring the state Capitol to demand better from the people managing the ERA program.
“DCA is one of the worst in the country [with ERA disbursal] because of their incompetence,” NACA CEO Bruce Marks told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview.
As of October, the DCA had disbursed just $47 million—9 percent—of the more than $550 million the federal government had allocated during the first round of ERA funding, according to U.S. Treasury Department documents. The program launched in January.
Marks said some members of NACA, which advocates for low-income Americans, are employees at DCA who have leaked details about the agency’s struggling ERA program, including that it’s dealing with a months-long application backlog.
Ashley Williams, who lives in DeKalb County, told Atlanta Civic Circle she applied for ERA help with the DCA on Aug. 27. “To this date, my application has not been reviewed or assigned to a caseworker,” she said. “I have contacted them multiple times, and all they tell me is that they have no timeline for when applications will be approved.”
DCA spokesperson Adrion Bell did not respond to questions about Williams’ case or the claim that the agency is months behind, saying only in a prepared statement, “There is an anticipated 30-day application turnaround for completed submissions. Since going statewide with our program, we have seen an increase in applications. To meet these demands, we hired additional staff and extended working hours to include weekends.”
Williams said she has a corporate landlord, and, “luckily, they have been surprisingly patient and flexible with waiting on rental assistance.” She said she’s been making partial rent payments—for current rent, but not arrears—but she’s worried an eviction filing could be on the horizon.
“I don’t believe they will file an eviction within the next week, but that’s definitely the upcoming result if nothing happens with my application within the next month,” Williams said.
Due to its sluggish distribution, the DCA is at risk of forfeiting some of its first-round ERA funds to the federal government, who would then reallocate the money.
The DCA was expected to provide a “program improvement plan” to the Treasury Department by Tuesday, although the state agency has not yet provided Atlanta Civic Circle with a copy of that plan, despite multiple requests.
A DCA representative told WABE last month that “once Treasury has an opportunity to look at our plan, they’ll realize we are doing everything that they’re requesting to meet their expectations.”
Treasury Department officials did not yet respond to inquiries regarding which ERA grantees would have to give back money so more efficient agencies could use it.
But who distributes the money isn’t nearly as important as how fast it gets to folks in need, said Marks, of NACA. If the Feds reclaim some of the DCA’s ERA funds, agencies that have shown they can make quick use of it—such as United Way, which has been helping the City of Atlanta administer its ERA program—should take over, he said. “We just want the tenants to get the assistance they need; we don’t have a vested interest in who can process it.”
State Rep. Park Cannon, the Democrat representing Georgia House District 58, said in an interview that lawmakers are now putting DCA officials’ feet to the fire, calling on them for updates to the ERA program and a clearer picture of how the agency intends to improve moving forward. “So far, the response [from DCA] has been that the amount of money was so high that they have been unable to administer the program,” she said.
State Rep. Viola Davis, the Democrat from Georgia’s 87th House district, said she attended a briefing Wednesday morning during which DCA officials said they’d appealed to Treasury Department officials for more time to spend their ERA money—hence the program improvement plan.
Some of the renters in Davis’s district, which includes parts of DeKalb County, face technological barriers, which make it tough to file paperwork for ERA applications, she said. Davis told Atlanta Civic Circle she suggested to DCA representatives that ERA distribution could be more efficient “if we allow tenants to apply in bulk” through their landlords and property managers. DCA officials seemed open to the idea, she added.
Davis also said that, although the DCA claims it only takes a few weeks to process ERA applications, many of her constituents, like Williams, have been waiting months for the money. “A lot of my people are in crisis situations,” she said, noting the state agency needs to better communicate with applicants and public officials.
DCA officials were supposed to host another briefing for legislators on the ERA program on Wednesday afternoon, although it was postponed less than an hour before it was scheduled to begin, according to agency emails obtained by Atlanta Civic Circle.
DCA officials have not yet said when the briefing will be rescheduled, and Bell, the spokesperson, did not make agency Commissioner Christopher Nunn or Deputy Commissioner Tonya Curry available for an interview, nor did he respond to a request for a future interview. This story will be updated as more information comes to light.