Money was tight for Harriet Feggins even before the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to her pocketbook. An asthmatic and insulin-dependent diabetic, she has trouble moving around and was living off of federal disability benefits, supporting herself and her two teenage daughters on meager monthly checks of less than $1,000. 

Then, last November, a stray bullet wounded Feggins’ then-14-year-old during a shooting at Atlantic Station, and in May her 16-year-old gave birth to a baby boy. Medical bills and other expenses piled up, and Feggins, a longtime Vine City resident, found herself three months—or $1,450—behind on rent. She figured her landlord, the Westside Future Fund, which pays part of its tenants’ rents, would soon file for eviction.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Feggins told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Am I going to sell a kidney? Am I going to sell a lung? I don’t know. I couldn’t sell plasma; my doctor didn’t approve of it, because of my asthma.”

Feggins’ predicament, though extreme, was hardly unique. She’s one of countless low-income Atlanta renters whose finances have taken a hit during the pandemic—and whose housing stability was abruptly thrust into question.

Tinisha Dixon lives in Bankhead with her husband and their seven children, who are between one and 13 years old. All nine of them contracted COVID-19 simultaneously—twice. “We were sick for months at a time,” she said in an interview. “The younger kids didn’t go to daycare for at least six months.”

The couple, both employed pre-COVID-19, couldn’t work. They fell 12 months behind on rent, racking up about $6,000 in arrears. “I thought we were going to lose our place,” Dixon said.

But in June, the Westside Future Fund—the nonprofit housing developer and landlord to Feggins, Dixon, and more than 200 other low-income renters—erased all its outstanding rent debt, spending $300,000 in philanthropic funds to wipe the slate clean for the 106 tenants who’d missed payments.

That was a godsend for folks like Feggins and Dixon, saving them from eviction. 

When her apartment’s property manager requested a meeting with her last month, Dixon thought she was being evicted. When she learned instead that her $6,000 debt would be forgiven, she said, “I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I burst out crying.”

Feggins said, “I can now breathe a sigh of relief.”

But the $300,000 that the Westside Future Fund raised for rent relief spotlights the scarcity of resources available to low-income Atlantans who are just one emergency away from displacement as they contend with a low-wage job market.

Help is hard to come by

Feggins said she sought emergency rental assistance from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs last year, but the pandemic-relief program—funded by the federal government and administered by the state—required applicants to navigate a laundry list of paperwork to verify their financial struggles. That barrier proved too high, she said, and so she never secured the help she needed.

Dixon was actually able to secure rental assistance through the city of Atlanta’s now-defunct pandemic relief program, which was run by United Way and also funded by federal money. But when that aid ran out after about a year, she wasn’t able to cover her family’s rent.

Without the Westside Future Fund’s help, Dixon said, she and her large family would have had to squeeze into the three-bedroom townhome where her mom lives with five children. “Even going up to visit there,” she said, “I’d sleep in the car sometimes.”

The alternative would have been homelessness, “and we’ve been homeless before,” Dixon said. “Being homeless again was not an option.”

Five of Tinisha Dixon’s seven children on the playground. (Credit: Sumbitted)

Feggins said she and her daughters might also have been put out on the street—or had to move out of the city where she grew up—without the unexpected aid from the Westside Future Fund. “I had to make tough decisions, like, are we going to go to the doctor, or are we going to get groceries? I started skipping medicine and stretching money.”

And that was before one daughter got shot—and is still recovering, physically and mentally—and the other gave birth.

“When times hit hard like this and you’re a single mom, and you’re trying to maintain the kids and their sanity, oh, my goodness,” Feggins said. “I felt like my city was failing me, and I was getting real down, like we might have to relocate somewhere else. I’d hate to uproot my kids, because we’re native Atlantans.”

Low-wage precarity

But even with the weight of rental debt off their shoulders, Feggins, Dixon, and many of the other 106 Westside Future Fund tenants receiving relief are far from financially secure.

Feggins started training as a MARTA Mobility bus driver just weeks before her younger daughter was caught in the crossfire last November—and it was only last week that she officially started the job, earning $20 an hour. But during one of her first shifts, she said, a passenger with hepatitis C, whom she was transporting to Grady Memorial Hospital, spat on her. 

Feggins and the passenger got into a fight, and she was promptly terminated. She’s lined up an interview at a Chick-Fil-A about two miles south of her apartment complex later this week. If she gets the job, she’ll make $13 an hour, paid weekly. 

The long walk down Northside Drive would be tough, because Feggins has had two knee and two hip replacements. She said she’ll buy a monthly MARTA card once she gets paid. Until then, “I gotta do what I gotta do, until things get better.”

Money will remain tight for Dixon, too. She recently started a new job, earning $12 an hour working remotely for Anthology, an educational tech company. Her husband is applying for social security benefits, but she’s currently the only one making rent payments. 

“Wages don’t cover the cost of living,” said Dixon, who must pay $520 of the $1,100 listed monthly rent for her family’s apartment. The Westside Future Fund covers the rest, but there are a lot of mouths to feed. 

“Even food is expensive,” added Feggins, who also pays about half her listed $1,250 rent, with the rest covered by the Westside Future Fund.

Filling the gap

Westside Future Fund CEO John Ahmann said the nonprofit started raising money for rent relief soon after the federal government declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency in March 2020.

For years, government rental assistance programs and eviction moratoria staved off much of the anticipated displacement. But once those programs had expired and the Biden administration declared the national emergency over, Ahmann determined it was time to deploy the $300,000 raised to help people without a paddle, and “to get everyone back in the habit of paying rent regularly.”

Ahmann said he tries to keep evictions rare—usually only exercising that right as a landlord in cases where tenants are creating safety issues, or if he learns “people are just not paying the rent because they’re choosing not to.” Those instances are few and far between, he said.

In contrast to the rental aid that the now-defunct local and state pandemic-relief programs provided, Ahman didn’t want to impose a battery of bureaucratic hoops for tenants to jump through.

“We didn’t force people to apply,” Ahmann told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview. Instead, the Westside Future Fund just set all of its tenants’ rent balance back to zero.

“We have a lot of gratitude to our donor community that allowed us to do this—to take what I call a grace-based approach—just giving everyone that opportunity, as opposed to saying, ‘Please submit to us a letter and prove to us you deserve this,’” he said.

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