Georgia County Tried To Help Everyone Facing Eviction. Now A Crisis Looms

Jul 23, 2021
Originally published on July 23, 2021 2:36 pm

Back around the start of the year, Michael Thurmond had a problem. He's the top elected official in DeKalb County, Ga. Congress had approved about $50 billion to help people catch up and pay rent to avoid eviction.

But Thurmond worried that his county wouldn't get enough money to help everybody.

"What do I say to the family who is the first in line after all the money has run out?" he asks.

Michael Thurmond, DeKalb County's top elected official, speaks at an event during the pandemic. His county has been struggling to get rental assistance money out the door to reach the people who need it.
Michael Holahan / USA Today Network via Reuters

So he and county officials decided to impose limits. Congress authorized more than a year of back rent assistance that would be paid in full. But the county imposed a different rule — it pays just 60% of the back rent someone owes. The landlord is supposed to absorb the loss beyond that or the renter comes up with the difference or something in between.

"Either you can help a smaller number of people by providing them greater assistance or you help a larger number of people by providing them with less assistance," Thurmond says. "So we took the position that we should help as many families as possible."

But that hasn't been the way things have played out. And with a federal eviction moratorium expiring next week, critics say DeKalb has reached a crisis moment.

Safiya Kitwana's landlord sticks notes with a big red Sharpie marker on her door, telling her she's facing eviction and now owes upward of $13,000.

"When they leave the note by the door, my kids, like they're wondering, 'Mommy, what we're going to do?' " she says. "I don't have answers for them."

Kitwana is exactly the type of person Congress was trying to help. She's a single mom with two teenage kids living in Lithonia, Ga. She lost her job at a call center when COVID-19 cases were spiking last winter.

And she quickly applied when the county's rental assistance portal went live in February.

"I was probably one of the first people that submitted that application," she says.

Finding work again has been hard. She has a back injury and needs a desk job. But after she applied for the rental assistance money, she got no response.

"I submitted my application at least four different times," she says. "And nobody would get back to me."

Around the country, many states and counties had trouble getting online systems for rental assistance up and running. Many of them crashed. In DeKalb, the system got hacked. Some programs got bogged down with bureaucratic rules.

All these problems have been delaying people getting help.

In fact, in DeKalb County, 93% of the money that's been allocated still hasn't reached anybody. (The county was awarded $38.7 million and says it has only managed to distribute $2.8 million.)

Kitwana recently heard that she had finally been approved. But with that cap in DeKalb County — she can only get 60% of the rent she owes. That still leaves her thousands of dollars behind. She doesn't have it. And so her landlord rejected the offer and is on the verge of evicting her.

"The landlord, they're not accepting it," she says. "There's myself and tons of families that are going through this, and I'm trying to figure out where does this make sense?"

It doesn't make sense, says Rebecca Yae with the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Of all the other programs that I've seen, this is definitely one of the more shocking ones." Yae says capping payments for back rent at 60% is far too restrictive. "This is extremely low, unfathomable; they really should be paying the full back rent."

DeKalb's cap on back rent is certainly more restrictive than other nearby counties in Georgia. Gwinnett, Clayton and Cobb counties do not have caps that low, and agencies in the city of Atlanta and Clayton County are paying 100% of back rent.

Yae says many other programs besides DeKalb's are also having trouble getting more than a small fraction of their money out the door.

Meanwhile, a federal moratorium that's been preventing a lot of evictions is set to expire next week.

"There is really no time left," Yae says. "Programs need to change now."

For his part, DeKalb's Thurmond says despite the problems, his county is working hard to help all the people it can.

"I do believe that if we continue to work at it and find a solution, we can help people," he tells NPR. "We've helped over 500 families in DeKalb County. That's real."

He says the program provides lawyers to help renters negotiate with landlords. It's made some other improvements.

But that 60% cap on back rent is still in place. And legal aid lawyers say that's going to mean hundreds of people such as Kitwana are going to get evicted.

Legal aid lawyers say hundreds of people such as Kitwana are going to lose their homes if DeKalb County doesn't fix its program by the end of the month when a federal eviction moratorium expires.
Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR

They say they would also like to see DeKalb and other counties in the area give that money for back rent directly to renters if the landlord rejects the deal. The Treasury Department guidelines encourage that. But some programs, including DeKalb's, still are not doing it.

For her part, Kitwana is just hoping the county changes its rules soon.

"They're not reevaluating what they're doing and how they're hurting families," she says.

Thurmond says he is reevaluating and everything is on the table. So the county might decide to pay more back rent or pay it in full. But with the eviction moratorium expiring next week, the clock is ticking.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A federal moratorium on evictions ends next week. Congress allocated billions of dollars to help Americans who are facing eviction, but a lot of that money is not reaching them. To understand why, NPR's Chris Arnold focused on a county in Georgia. Here's Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Back around the start of the year, Michael Thurmond had a problem. He's the top elected official in DeKalb County, Ga. Congress had approved about $50 billion in money to help people catch up and pay rent to avoid eviction. But Thurmond worried that his county wouldn't get enough money to help everybody.

MICHAEL THURMOND: What do I say to the family who is the first in line after all the money has run out?

ARNOLD: So he and county officials decided to impose limits. For one, the county would only pay 60% of someone's back rent. The landlord would have to just absorb the loss beyond that, or the renter would have to come up with the difference or something in between.

THURMOND: Either you can help a smaller number of people by providing them great assistance, or you help a larger number of people by providing them with less assistance. And so we took the position that we should help as many families as possible.

ARNOLD: OK, that might sound reasonable, but that has not been the way things have played out. The county's portal for renters to apply for the money went live back in February.

SAFIYA KITWANA: I was probably one of the first people that submitted that application.

ARNOLD: Safiya Kitwana is a single mom with two teenage kids living in Lithonia, Ga. She lost her call center job when COVID cases were spiking last winter. Finding work again has been hard - she has a back injury and needs a desk job. And after she applied for the rental assistance money, she got no response.

KITWANA: I submitted my application at least four different times, and nobody got back to me.

ARNOLD: Around the country, many states and counties had to set up online systems for rental assistance for the first time. Many of them crashed. In DeKalb, the system got hacked. Some of the programs got bogged down with bureaucratic rules, and all of that's been delaying people getting help. In fact, in DeKalb County, 93% of the money that it's been allocated hasn't reached anybody. Meanwhile, for Kitwana, months have gone by and she's fallen farther behind. The landlord sticks notes with a big red Sharpie marker on her door, telling her she's facing eviction and now owes upwards of $13,000.

KITWANA: When they leave the note by the door, my kids, like, they're wondering, Mommy - what we're going to do. And I don't have answers for them.

ARNOLD: Kitwana is exactly the type of person Congress was trying to help. And recently, she finally heard that she had been approved. But with that cap in DeKalb County, she can only get 60% of the rent that she owes. That leaves her thousands of dollars still behind. She doesn't have it. And so her landlord is on the verge of evicting her.

KITWANA: The landlord, they're not accepting it. There's myself and tons of families that's going through this. And I'm trying to figure out where does this make sense? Like, what's going on?

ARNOLD: What's going on is that the county's original plan hasn't been working. If they had been able to help almost everybody in need by limiting the money, then OK, but critics say since they're just getting a tiny fraction of the money out the door, why not at least pay the back rents in full for people like Kitwana so they don't get evicted? Rebecca Yae is with the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

REBECCA YAE: Of all the other programs that I've seen, this is definitely one of the more shocking ones. I think that this is extremely low, unfathomable. They really should be paying the full back rent.

ARNOLD: Yae says still, DeKalb's not alone and that many other programs are having trouble getting money out the door. Meanwhile, a federal moratorium that's been preventing a lot of evictions is set to expire just next week.

YAE: There is really no time left. Programs need to change now.

ARNOLD: For his part, Michael Thurmond with DeKalb County says despite the problems, his county is working hard to help all the people that they can.

THURMOND: I do believe that if we continue to work at it and find a solution, we can help people. We've helped over 500 families in DeKalb County. That's real.

ARNOLD: And he says the program provides lawyers to help renters negotiate with landlords. It's made some other improvements, too. But that 60% cap on back rents is still in place. And legal aid lawyers say that's going to mean hundreds of people like Kitwana are going to get evicted. For her part, Kitwana is just hoping that the county changes its rules very soon.

KITWANA: They're not reevaluating what they're doing and how they're hurting families.

ARNOLD: Michael Thurmond says he is reevaluating and everything's on the table, so the county might decide to pay more in back rents or pay it in full. But with the eviction moratorium expiring next week, the clock is ticking.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.