As eviction filings resurge to pre-pandemic levels, an extra-governmental commission of planning and development experts is urging the city of Atlanta to increase protections for low-income renters and lobby state legislators to change the laws that make Georgia so landlord-friendly.
The Atlanta Housing Commission—not to be confused with the public housing authority, Atlanta Housing, and its board of commissioners—called out the “unscrupulous practices by too many property owners who take advantage of a legal environment in Georgia which maintains an imbalance of power steeply favoring owners over tenants,” in a letter sent last week to the Atlanta City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens.
Atlantans facing eviction need greater access to free legal aid and at least a full-week grace period to cure lease violations before getting kicked out of their homes, the letter said. In Georgia, renters currently have just three days to resolve disputes with their landlords before the landlords can file in court to evict them, so the commission called on the city to advocate for state-level reforms.
Atlanta Housing Commission chair Andy Schneggenburger said the city council’s Community Development and Human Services Committee will consider its full list of recommendations in July.
Eviction filings in metro Atlanta plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 14,181 in January 2020 to just 6,717 in January 2021, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. But they shot back up starting in summer 2021, and escalated to 14,211 filings last January.
The Atlanta Housing Commission said the onus is on city officials to shield Atlantans from the surge in efforts to evict them. “We were intentional about putting some [recommendations] on the table that are within the city’s independent ability to enact,” Schneggeburger told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.
Feasible fast changes
For one, the city could quickly expand its eviction-prevention pilot program to cover all Atlantans. The city created the partnership last July between the Atlanta public defender’s office and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) with $500,000 in seed money from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to provide free lawyers to low-income renters in southwest and Westside neighborhoods who face eviction.
The commission also proposed that the city create several levels of tenant advocacy and education programs to help tenants with a range of disputes with their landlords. The goal is to educate renters and landlords about renters’ legal rights and the eviction process, try to resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they reach the courthouse, and refer renters to AVLF lawyers when eviction filings can’t be avoided. Only a fraction of tenants facing a dispossessory action have a lawyer, and the odds of staying housed increase sharply for those who do.
The mayor’s chief housing advisor, Joshua Humpries, said some of those goals are already materializing at City Hall. “This is why we’re standing up the Housing Help Center,” he said in an interview. The city council approved $600,000 on June 6 from its affordable housing trust fund to create the help center at City Hall, along with a website and hotline.
As for the 18-month eviction-prevention pilot program, Humphries said the city will audit it in the fall and either spend more to expand it or figure out other ways to connect renters to free legal aid for evictions.
“That’s the value of running something as a pilot,” Humphries said. “We think the scale of the need is pretty large when it comes to eviction defense… If we scale this citywide, or to more areas of the city over longer years, what would it cost us to do it, and what did we learn in this initial pilot that we can use to make it more effective in the future?”
AVLF executive director Michael Lucas said he’s in favor of the commission’s suggestion to expand the eviction-prevention pilot program.
“This administration and the city council have taken some great steps toward addressing the problem, but the Housing Commission is absolutely right that more is needed,” he said in an email. “As courts continue to work through their backlog at the same time that rents continue to rise, we will continue to see more and more evictions and displacement. Without more action, the problem will only get worse in Atlanta.”
Lucas also supported the Housing Commission’s call for easier public access to code enforcement reports. If a tenant is fighting an eviction from a landlord, having a documented history of property mismanagement can help their case, he explained.
As Schneggenburger noted, that kind of reform wouldn’t require legislation; it would just take some administrative action at the city solicitor’s office.
“Providing access to housing code records would increase accountability and, ultimately, housing safety and housing stability,” said Michael Waller, the executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which runs a housing justice initiative. “Access to counsel and housing code records just levels the playing field. Landlords already have lawyers and can access all kinds of information about tenants and their families, like credit histories, rental histories, et cetera.”
Humphries said this is something the city’s new Safe and Secure Housing program seeks to accomplish. In addition to creating the Housing Help Center, the Atlanta City Council allocated $800,000 on June 6 to the Safe and Secure Housing program, so the city solicitor’s office can hire seven additional code enforcement staff and contract with private attorneys to crack down on code violations from negligent landlords.
Some changes require state-level intervention
The Atlanta City Council last year passed a resolution that says rental properties receiving government subsidies shouldn’t be able to turn away would-be tenants—or evict current renters—who use publicly funded rent vouchers, but the Housing Commission encouraged the city to approve binding legislation that’s enforceable.
This is a trickier ask, said Humphries, because Georgia bars cities from enacting fair housing laws that are broader than its own—and state law doesn’t include any anti-discrimination protections for Section 8 voucher holders. “After working through this [resolution] with a bunch of experts, we thought that was the strongest route forward under state law,” he said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Stronger statewide renter protection laws would demand a considerable change of heart among Georgia’s Republican-dominated state legislature—and about a quarter of the state’s lawmakers are landlords.
“Changes to state law around the eviction process and expectations for property owners are going to be a challenge, but are worth the continued effort because they could be game-changing if done right,” Schneggenburger said.
He’s cautiously optimistic, even though legislation as watered-down as the bipartisan Safe at Home Act failed to pass the General Assembly earlier this year. The proposal would have provided for “a duty of habitability for certain rental agreements,” which is a convoluted way of saying landlords would have to guarantee their units are livable—but the bill didn’t even define “habitability.”
Still, state leaders—mostly Democrats—will push for a host of progressive housing legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, state Rep. Viola Davis (D-Stone Mountain) told Atlanta Civic Circle: Expect the Safe at Home Act to resurface, as well as legislation to repeal Georgia’s ban on rent regulation, and to establish statutes regulating homeowners associations.
Lucas, of AVLF, said these reforms will become more feasible when state legislators realize that helping people stay housed is in the public’s best interest.
“Evictions and housing conditions continue to negatively impact the health, education, and quality of life of Atlantans,” he said. “What’s more, they cost us all and drag this city down, whether it is driving the rising costs of addressing the homelessness that evictions create, the cost to our school systems having to deal with families churning in and out of our classrooms, or the healthcare costs of apartments that literally make children sick.”