While the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) wades through its backlog of roughly 33,000 emergency rental assistance (ERA) applications, the state agency is denying nearly as many applicants as it’s approving.
As of early December, the DCA had received nearly 50,000 applications for federal rental aid. It had processed just over 16,000 of them—less than one-third of the total—approving 54% and denying assistance to the other 46%, according to public records obtained by Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), a national renter advocacy organization.
Already under fire for administering one of the slowest-spending emergency rental assistance programs in the country, the DCA now faces questions about why thousands of applicants are being rejected. DCA officials did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment.
NACA’s CEO, Bruce Marks, said it’s “outrageous” that DCA is denying almost half of the applications processed. Based on his group’s research nationally, the DCA’s rental assistance program “stands out as an outlier that is completely dysfunctional and mismanaged,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle.
DCA officials have repeatedly defended their program, pointing to cumbersome federal regulations and the massive amount of money—$552 million—they received from the U.S. Treasury Department in January from the first round of ERA funding as obstacles to distribution.
Marks and other critics have called for the DCA to turn some of its ERA1 money over to local governments which have shown they can spend it more promptly.
That might actually happen. DCA officials on Dec. 7 presented a plan to state lawmakers to share more than $80 million of its ERA1 pot with metro Atlanta county governments: $25 million for Fulton, $25 million for DeKalb, $15 million for Henry, $9 million for Clayton, and $6.6 million for Hall.
But even if that plan pans out, the DCA would still be charged with disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars–and Marks and others are calling for changes to the state’s ERA program.
The president of apartment management firm R. James Properties, Kelly James, said the ERA application process is still “so complicated that many residents who wish to apply for rent relief have a lot of trouble completing the application.”
What’s more, he told Atlanta Civic Circle, applications today largely rely on participation from both renter and landlord. If a landlord won’t cooperate, the DCA can pay renters directly, but it won’t pay landlords if the tenant refuses to play ball.
“The simplest step DCA could take to speed up the distribution of rent relief funds is to replace the entire resident portion of the application process with a simple landlord attestation form,” James said.
He also suggested creating a streamlined, uniform application process for all Georgia agencies tasked with disbursing ERA funds, as application protocol across the board is considered burdensome for folks without easy access to computers or those lacking technological wherewithal.
Marks added that the DCA also must do a much better job communicating with applicants, especially when the state agency denies claims because they lack some of the requisite paperwork.
“I’ve never heard of any [ERA] provider that has come close to 50% denial,” Marks said, adding that DCA does not have an appeals process for people who’ve had their claim denied. DCA officials did not respond to a question about the appeals process for denied claims.