The state agency that received Georgia’s largest chunk of federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds announced Wednesday that it plans to turn some of that cash over to local governments who have done a better job distributing it to renters and landlords in need.
Early this year, the U.S. Treasury Department allocated $552.3 million in the first round of ERA funding (ERA1) to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as part of a nationwide eviction prevention effort. It divvied up another $157.9 million to some of the state’s most populous counties and cities. But because the DCA was slow to disburse those funds—spending just $47 million, or 9%, by October —the Treasury Department has put it on notice that it may reallocate some of the funds to better-performing agencies.
DCA officials said this week that transferring some of that cash to other jurisdictions should help struggling renters and landlords get help faster.
The Georgia agency was allotted a total of nearly $1 billion in two rounds of federal ERA funding this year—$552.3 million in ERA1 and $437 million in ERA2.
“The State has embraced the option of voluntarily reallocating funds to local jurisdictions and has already allocated additional funding to several high-performing jurisdictions,” DCA Commissioner Christopher Nunn said in a statement on Monday.
DCA’s Housing Assistance Division’s director, Daphne Walker, said at an Atlanta Regional Housing Forum webinar on Wednesday that the agency will reallocate $74 million from its ERA1 fund to Georgia jurisdictions that have doled out most or all of their ERA1 money, pending the Treasury Department’s sign-off.
“We have already voluntarily submitted to Treasury a [plan for] reallocation of $25 million to Fulton County,” Walker said, adding that the DCA also hopes to give $15 million to Henry County, $9 million to Clayton, and more to other local governments.
“We don’t know the rhyme or reason behind why [the DCA] got $552 million in ERA1 and $437 million in ERA2,” Walker said, adding that DCA considers it better to share the wealth than to strain to spend it all alone.
Because the DCA failed to meet the Treasury Department’s expenditure goal by the Sept. 30 deadline—falling well short of the federal minimum disbursal target of 30%—the state agency had to submit a program improvement plan on Nov. 15.
According to the plan, obtained by Atlanta Civic Circle through an open records request, roughly 33,000 applicants are still awaiting rental assistance approval from the DCA.
In the plan, the DCA claimed that it expects to distribute $31.5 million to eligible households in November, $41 million in December, $45.4 million in January, and $53.6 million in February. Those projections would require a drastic uptick in application processing and spending, although Walker said on Wedneday that the DCA distributed $2.3 million on Tuesday alone.
A Treasury Department spokesperson told Atlanta Civic Circle that right now it is reviewing program improvement plans from jurisdictions across the country, so the fate of the DCA’s ERA1 money should become more clear in the near future.
The DCA said in its improvement plan that it was “proud that [the DCA] has disbursed more than $45 million to date to assist Georgians in need of rental, utility, or housing stability assistance.”
However, the DCA is one of only eight state agencies nationally that have spent less than 10% of their ERA1 money, according to Treasury Department data. In North Carolina, for instance, the state agency administering its ERA program spent 72% of its funds by October—even though the state’s population size is similar to Georgia’s and the agency received a similar amount of ERA1 money.
The DCA improvement plan blamed the program’s shortcomings on a “short window to expend the funds”—as well as verification checks to ensure people didn’t receive additional assistance from the 12 Georgia cities and counties that also received ERA funds. The City of Atlanta and Fulton County, for instance, received $15 million and $18 million, respectively. The DCA initially only awarded funds to renters and landlords outside those 12 jurisdictions, but in August it opened up applications statewide.
The DCA plan also raised concerns about fraud. “During the initial implementation of the GRA [Georgia Rental Assistance] program, renters, landlords, and many of the State of Georgia’s local utility providers were skeptical of the validity of the program due to phishing scams, fraud, etc., and this affected their willingness to apply for assistance and/or participate in the program,” it said.
Bruce Marks, the head of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), has called DCA’s ERA program “one of the worst in the country.” He told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview that DCA officials are just making excuses and should be embarrassed by their program’s subpar performance.
Marks said the NACA, a nonprofit mortgage lender with more than 60,000 members in Georgia, reached out to Nunn to offer help with its ERA program. “No response,” he said.
The DCA’s program improvement plan says it will fast-track application processing and make ERA money more accessible by bolstering community outreach efforts, publishing a “GRA dashboard” so the public can track the program’s progress, and enlisting colleges and universities to help “work non-traditional shifts in the evenings and on weekends to improve the quality and pace of all applications being processed by the program and limit staff turnover.”
The plan also says DCA will “continue to increase partnerships with courts and community partner agencies” to direct people at risk of eviction toward public services. “The GRA Program understands the urgency of providing rental and utility assistance to tenants, landlords, and utility providers as quickly as possible throughout the state,” it adds.
Activists and some elected officials question the DCA’s sense of urgency. At an NACA rally earlier this month outside downtown’s state government office towers, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said she was disappointed in the DCA’s administration of its ERA program. Moore, who just lost her bid for Atlanta mayor to Councilmember Andre Dickens, told WABE that she intends to “meet with our state partners so we can take action and distribute the federal emergency rental assistance funds.”
State Reps. Park Cannon (D-HD58) and Viola Davis (D-HD87) have said the same in recent interviews with Atlanta Civic Circle.
Georgia is among more than 30 states at risk of forfeiting ERA funds to the Treasury Department for reallocation, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.