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Most Rental Assistance Programs In Metro Atlanta Won’t Pay Tenants Directly, Ignoring Federal Guidance

After qualifying for rental assistance, Marhonda Gordon was able to offer her landlord $10,000 in rent. He declined. Now her application is uncertain.
After qualifying for rental assistance, Marhonda Gordon was able to offer her landlord $10,000 in rent. He declined. Now her application is uncertain.
Credit Stephannie Stokes / WABE

Marhonda Gordon has barely left her house in the last year.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m here 24/7,” she said.

She and her four children have all been together in this suburban home in south DeKalb County for the entire pandemic. For Gordon, it turned out to be a blessing.

“It brought us closer. We’re here all the time with each other,” she said. “When I do something, they’re with me. Every time you see me, you see them.”

They were in the middle of their own crisis at the start of 2020. Gordon had to move her children out of an abusive situation. They’d just settled in this house when the other, worldwide crisis began.

“I think it happened for a reason in my family,” Gordon says. “It was scary, of course. But I feel like we had to go through that to get where we’re at today.”

She says they’re ready for a new chapter now. Her family just has to overcome one more obstacle: Gordon’s landlord filed an eviction against her earlier this year.

Her case is pending in the court as a national moratorium on evictions nears its expiration on July 31, and local governments in Georgia work to distribute millions of dollars in federal rental assistance.

But Gordon may not be able to access those funds.

Her landlord won’t agree to participate, and she lives in a county that won’t consider the next option: to give the rental assistance directly to her.

Like many tenants, her trouble covering rent started at the beginning of the pandemic. Although her job in human resources became remote, her hours were cut — from 40 to eight.

Gordon paid some of her rent with the help of churches, and she says her landlord was understanding at first.

“I don’t know what happened. But I get it. He had to do his job,” she says.

She’s still processing what came next.

After the eviction notice, she qualified for federal rental assistance through DeKalb County. The program and Gordon together offered to pay her landlord nearly $10,000 in back rent.

He said no.

“I was just confused that he was getting the past due — plus two additional months of rent — and he declined it,” she says. “So I don’t know.”

There are more cases like hers, according to Lindsey Siegel, director of housing advocacy at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, which is helping DeKalb County with rental assistance.

She says about 15 percent of landlords have rejected their offers so far.

“The difficulty is you can’t force the landlord to take the money,” Siegel says.

“I was just confused that he was getting the past due — plus two additional months of rent — and he declined it,” Gordon says. “So I don’t know.”

That doesn’t need to derail the tenant’s application, however.

When the federal government released billions of dollars in rental assistance to state and local governments, it gave instructions for this scenario. If landlords reject help, the U.S. Treasury Department advised local programs to then provide the assistance directly to the tenant.

But more than half of the distributors of these federal funds in metro Atlanta have chosen not to. DeKalb County is one. The others include Clayton, Cherokee, Cobb and Henry counties and the City of Atlanta.

Only Fulton, Gwinnett and Hall counties say they already give money to tenants under these circumstances, or plan to adjust their policies to allow for that. A statewide program serving less populous parts of Georgia also says it will pay tenants when landlords refuse.

With just $1.5 billion of $46 billion in federal rental assistance funding spent by the end of June, housing advocates are urging all local governments to follow.

“It’s very clear in the guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department, and in the guidance from the White House, that they expect program administrators to use direct-to-tenant assistance when landlords refuse to participate,” says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

When a landlord declines the funding, it already slows down the process, Yentel says. And if a program won’t pay the tenant, the outcome just becomes worse — the tenant may not receive any assistance at all.

She says she’s heard some programs worry tenants may misuse funds. But she notes that worry doesn’t come up in relief efforts for people with higher incomes.

“There’s less reluctance to give cash directly to homeowners, knowing that they will pay their bills, than there is to do the same with low-income renters,” Yentel says.

If programs want some assurance, she says they can have tenants sign a form promising to spend the money right.

DeKalb County officials wouldn’t comment for this story, and neither would Gordon’s landlord.

According to Legal Aid, the disagreement came down to when she would move out. Gordon agreed to — within 60 days. The landlord insisted on 30.

The National Apartment Association says other landlords, which it calls housing providers, might reject federal money because local programs add requirements. Some, for example, insist landlords not evict their tenants after accepting the federal money.

Jodie Applewhite, manager of public policy at the association, says placing conditions on the funding is misguided.

“The grantees should focus on making sure that the money reaches the housing providers who have gone months without any payments,” Applewhite says.

DeKalb’s local program also created an extra rule for its federal funds. It only pays 60 percent of past-due rent. Gordon made up the rest with her own money.

Now the county only can offer her a consolation prize, says Siegel with Legal Aid.

“Once she is able to find a new place to rent, she can submit that new lease to the court and have two months covered,” she says.

That amount will be a lot less than the rent Gordon owes at her current home.

And it also means she has to find new housing, which is difficult with the open eviction case against her. She’s still trying.

“I feel it’s all going to come into play,” she says. “Sooner or later. I just got to be patient.”

Gordon’s working full time now. Eventually, she would like to buy a house for herself and her children.

With the debt she owes to her landlord, she realizes that a new chapter may be further off.