When non-emergency surgeries stopped in Chatham County area medical clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dottie Carswell lost her job as a medical coder in July 2020.
Like millions of other Americans who once had steady jobs, she suddenly was concerned about paying her upcoming bills. In need of help, she called a group to which she used to donate: United Way of the Coastal Empire, a nonprofit that serves in Chatham and surrounding counties.
“It was like, OK, I need help,” Carswell said. United Way provided money for her electricity bill and a couple of mortgage payments.
Carswell found a new job last December, but there are still more than 10,000 households in Chatham County behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas, a database by PolicyLink and University of Southern California Equity Research Institute that uses U.S. Census Bureau data.
Saturday ended the federal moratorium on evictions, meaning that the 286 eviction cases filed in Chatham County courts can start to be processed. With the federal safety nets elapsing, Shaina Thompson, an eviction prevention lawyer with Georgia Legal Services Program, says that wave will grow into “a tsunami of evictions.”
A dead moratorium
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control issued a moratorium in September 2020 on evictions because of nonpayment of rent as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in crowded homeless shelters and living situations.
The mandate meant that as long as tenants attested they met certain income levels, couldn’t pay rent and would become homeless if evicted, their landlord could not evict them. The order was extended multiple times but lapsed July 31.
To help landlords stay solvent during this period, the federal government also approved hundreds of millions of dollars in rent and utility assistance, which in Georgia have been distributed by community organizations.
United Way and the Economic Opportunity Authority of Savannah-Chatham County, or EOA, have filled this need locally for people like Carswell. The groups were selected to distribute federal assistance because of their established community ties.
Around 125,000 vulnerable families, people who work but have limited income, live in the coastal region, according to Jennifer Darsey, vice president of direct services at United Way. The pandemic exacerbated their fragile financial situation.
“There are literally so many people who are trying to make ends meet, they just don’t make enough money,” Darsey said. “That one crisis is the difference between them being stable and them no longer being stable.”
Before March 2020, United Way functioned mainly as a referral channel for people experiencing housing insecurity. Then, when the pandemic hit, the group’s telephone hotline for help went from about 150 calls a week to over 1,000.
First the organization distributed $675,000 from the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund — money raised from community donations. It then received $3.2 million from the city of Savannah and $800,000 from Chatham County from the federal CARES Act, along with $1.9 million specifically for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“The goal really was to try to help families in the safety net prior to an eviction ever being issued,” said Darsey. United Way has prevented the eviction of 1,712 people, according to Darsey, and there is $1.1 million in funding still available through the ERA. Darsey stressed that United Way is there for many services for people in need, not just rental assistance.
The EOA also received $2 million for the emergency rental assistance program, which it was able to use to pay for rent and utilities, including internet service. At one point after the pandemic’s effects started ravaging the economy and people’s health, EOA’s system was “overloaded with people,” said Mona Clark, a home-buyer education coordinator for the group. Federal regulations mean that rental assistance programs work directly with landlords to give funds for rent and utilities.
A vicious cycle
The majority of people coming to the EOA and United Way for help are women, particularly single women, according to Terry Tolbert, EOA’s director. Single-income households are less financially stable than dual-income households.
Many worry that the pandemic’s eviction crisis will worsen cycles of poverty. Mental health issues may worsen during periods of stress, and children that aren’t able to go to school in-person may have their education stunted, according to a study from April of this year.
Economically vulnerable people face short and long-term consequences for their credit ratings. Evictions impact their credit records, making it harder to find a new place to live.
“When you have that negative mark against you, I think it’s going to be exponentially harder for individuals to find a place to live,” Darsey said. “That’s going to be a national problem.”
The looming eviction crisis also impacts property owners, landlords, their mortgages and credit scores. They might own an asset, but they still have bills to pay, including property taxes. “There’s a duality to what’s going on,” Darsey said.
Landlords had to let their tenants know about the moratorium on evictions. To be spared getting kicked out of their rental properties, tenants had to sign a CDC form declaring that they meet certain income level requirements. The form attests that tenants have done their best to make rental payments and would be at risk of becoming homeless if evicted.
That didn’t stop landlords from filing eviction cases. Evictions for other reasons, like violation of lease terms, proceeded through the legal system during the pandemic, according to Bill Broker of the nonprofit Georgia Legal Services Program. And some landlords still filed eviction cases that were stayed due to the moratorium because they involved nonpayment of rent due to the pandemic.
As of July 26, there were 286 such cases on the Chatham County Magistrate Court docket, according to clerk of court Tracie Grove Macke. That means these cases will proceed after July 31.
Lawyer Keith Berry represents landlords, primarily in dispossessory cases. As the moratorium — and the pandemic as a whole — has upended the way that many landlords and tenants operate, he said his clients are looking forward to the order expiring to get back to a normal cycle of payments.
Maintaining properties and paying mortgage payments and property taxes requires money, and can be difficult for landlords without rent payments, according to Berry.
“For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” Berry said. “It’s that sort of thing — the law of unintended consequences.”
What comes next for vulnerable families and stressed landlords?
Former Savannah City Manager Michael Brown said the city doesn’t have the authority to issue a local eviction ban.
Still, there are millions of dollars in federal aid still available for tenants and property owners behind on their mortgage which isn’t affected by the July 31 deadline.
Attorneys at the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income people, are working with people involved in eviction cases.
Shaina Thompson, an eviction prevention lawyer with GLSP, said landlords are still required to give tenants 30 days notice before actually evicting them, which gives tenants and their legal team time after the CDC moratorium expires to work on a legal case and other housing opportunities. Thompson said showing that you have reached out for resources to help cover unpaid rent can also help a case in court.
Those in need of financial assistance should call the United Way and EOA. “There’s money that’s definitely there for rental assistance,” Thompson said. “People definitely, definitely need to reach out for that.”