Nicholas Knox has been dreaming about waking up in a decent apartment, the sun beaming in through the windows as his 8-year-old daughter bounces on the bed. “It would be like Christmas morning,” he said.
But for the last eight months, he’s instead awoken in a cramped motel room in Norcross, sharing the lone bed with his child, surrounded by nearly everything they own—their last resort after COVID-19-related financial issues got him evicted from his Sandy Springs townhome.
Later this week, Knox, a single parent, plans to finally move into a new apartment in Decatur, where he and his daughter can have their own bedrooms and he can breathe a bit easier. But the journey up to this point has been a nightmare, he told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview.
“It’s like I’ve been stuck in quicksand,” he said. So moving into a new home “is like a dream—like coming out of murky waters.”
Knox, a marketing professional earning $60,000 a year, never imagined he’d find himself adrift in metro Atlanta’s increasingly expensive and competitive rental housing market, practically going door-to-door to find a landlord willing to overlook his eviction and take him in. But after losing a previous job in a layoff from the pandemic, he fell behind on rent and was kicked out from the townhome in Sandy Springs he’d shared with his daughter.
And he knows he’s not alone; some 25,000 metro Atlantans have made hotel rooms their permanent or semi-permanent homes. Many are also saddled with bad credit scores and evictions and facing a market that’s unwelcoming to renters down on their luck.
“Every day I was on pins and needles,” Knox said of his relentless search for housing. “There really was no downtime; I had to stay in attack mode, searching for homes, application after application.”
He considered about 20 different apartments and applied for maybe eight. His lease application was accepted by just one, in Decatur, where he’ll rent a three-bedroom unit for $1,900 a month. That’s just $100 cheaper than the $500 a week he was paying to live at the Hometown Motel in Sandy Springs, so more than a third of his monthly income will still be spent on housing, but it will be a place to call home.
Knox said he couldn’t have found stable housing without outside help. After reading an Atlanta Civic Circle article about the many metro Atlantans stuck in similar situations, he connected with Sue Sullivan, a realtor who volunteers with St. Vincent de Paul Georgia’s motel-to-home program.
“She has been just a godsend,” Knox said. “She saw leads [from her real estate work] and said, ‘Hey, Nicholas, can you afford $1,900 a month?’ I said it would be tight, but I definitely can afford it.”
He prayed the Decatur apartment she spotted wouldn’t be “another heartbreaker,” like the others whose landlords took his application fees only to turn him down. But he said he had a “heart-to-heart conversation with the landlord, and I guess he saw the genuine, honest person I am.”
“I really can say that I’m a good guy,” Knox said. “I never take advantage of anything or anybody, and I told him about all the pain and misery this hardship has brought.”
He appreciates that the landlord, knowing his complicated financial past, took a chance on him. And Knox said he’s especially grateful for the Single Parent Alliance and Resource Center, which covered the security deposits and other fees required to get accepted at the complex.
Sullivan said Knox is right; he couldn’t have done this on his own. Nor can the thousands of metro Atlantans trapped in extended-stay motels. Sullivan can’t help them all on her own, and even the nonprofits that offer motel-to-home programs don’t have the funding or staff to fully address the crisis.
Sullivan said Knox’s story is a testament to the punitive nature of Georgia’s eviction system, wherein being evicted for being unable to pay rent brands tenants with a de facto scarlet letter. “This whole effort to find a landlord willing to take in Nicholas with an eviction on his record is just mind-boggling,” she said, noting she almost cosigned on a lease with him “because I was at wit’s end, like, How is he ever going to find a place?”
“Nicholas has a great job,” Sullivan said. “These people in the hotels are working their butts off, working at Publix or Kroger. They’re working two jobs or more, and they still can’t afford to get out of hotels and into a decent place to live.”
Perhaps more frustrating, Sullivan added, was watching the city of Atlanta return $10 million in emergency rental assistance funds to the federal government after failing to spend it all by the December 2022 deadline.
In an ideal world, she said, local and state governments would find ways to fund motel-to-home programs, so they can help more than just a few hundred clients a year. Until then, people willing to help can donate to organizations offering these services, like United Way of Greater Atlanta, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, and New Life Community Ministries.
Atlanta’s housing crisis is a lot bigger than these programs can solve, she added. “These programs are successful in moving people out, but it is still so difficult to find affordable housing that is safe and clean.”
Even when people are relocated, it can be a struggle to get fully back on their feet after living for extended periods in hotel rooms. Knox, for instance, needs help furnishing his new apartment, getting his daughter school supplies, and fixing his truck, which broke down last week.
So Sullivan took to the app Nextdoor to appeal for donations. She said she received an “outpouring of support,” raising more than $600 in just a few days.
Knox said these last eight months, tumultuous though they’ve been, “have taught me that charity really does exist.”
“I just thought that people wouldn’t care—that people are more selfish than that,” he said. “But no. People are willing to help people that are helping themselves.”
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