VALDOSTA — Vicah Smith has no place to live.
“Sometimes I go and stay in the hospital,” she said, sitting in the air-conditioned lobby of South Georgia Medical Center. “I have a friend who drives a taxi, and sometimes I stay with them.”
Until recently, she had a house on Vallotton Drive that she rented out.
She was injured at her job in October and said she was fired after seeking help with workers’ compensation.
She contacted the South Georgia Partnership to End Homelessness, a nonprofit, for help in obtaining government assistance to pay her rent.
“They helped with the paperwork,” Smith said.
Georgia’s Ministry of Community Affairs runs a program that is supposed to distribute federal funds to people who need help paying rent.
The DCA requested specific documents from her landlord regarding the amount of rent she paid. Smith said the owner was willing to send something electronically, but the DCA required paperwork.
Two days after asking her landlord for the papers, she returned home to find a county constable’s note ordering her to vacate her house by the end of the week.
Ronnie Mathis, who works with the Homeless Partnership, retrieved Smith’s DCA file from a computer, pointing out where the department had denied his request for help specifically because of his owner’s lack of documentation.
DCA’s Rental Assistance Program is supposed to send payment checks directly to landlords when possible, but can send checks directly to tenants if landlords aren’t participating in the program, Mathis said. Smith said she hadn’t heard of the DCA rental program.
“The DCA let this lady down,” Mathis said.
THE UPWARD SWING
Mathis said the partnership has seen a big increase in people seeking help paying their rent.
Figures provided by the Lowndes County Magistrates Court show that while the number of eviction notice applications by landlords increased by approximately 31% between June 2021 and June 2022, the actual number of formal eviction notices remained about even.
In June 2021, the owners asked the court for 98
eviction requests, compared to 141 in June 2022. But the number of evictions actually carried out remained almost the same: 63 in June 2021 and 69 in June 2022.
In fact, statistics show that the number of eviction requests and actual evictions in the county fluctuated widely during this 12 month period.
The Centers for Disease Control attempted to impose a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Supreme Court ruled in August 2021 that the CDC lacked that authority.
WHERE IS THE OWNER
It’s easy to cast landlords as villains in this scenario, kicking desperate people out of their homes. But it is not that simple.
Barbara Brown, like Smith, was injured on the job last year. She has a daughter who needs 24-hour care. Brown was five months behind in rent on a $600-a-month house on Cummings Street.
Shontina Robins, the partnership’s social worker, said Brown had a landlord who was willing to help.
Doris Foster, its owner, tried to work with Brown and the Partnership to fix the situation, but she suffered an economic blow in the process.
“When (Brown) moved in, I had a problem with the floor in the rental house and it cost me about $3,000 to fix it,” Foster said.
“I really tried to work with (Brown) because he’s a good tenant, and I don’t want to kick him out, but I can’t afford not to get anything,” Foster said.
Brown’s house is Foster’s only rental property. Foster and her husband live on a fixed income.
Repairs and maintenance of a rental home are difficult in these circumstances; Foster had to take out a loan to get the flooring repaired.
Mathis said that in the three weeks since this interview with Brown and Foster, a situation has been resolved so that Brown is still in her home.
“We took care of her,” he said. “There has been no change.”
TRY TO PASS
Life has been tough for Charley Milton lately.
His wife died in December of cancer. He has no toes due to gangrene. His car was seized. Now he’s afraid of being evicted from his rental home on Barack Obama Boulevard.
His wife had worked for 22 years. Now the widower is living on Social Security and is two months behind on his rent and still has to pay utilities. Her rent debt is $750. At the time of this interview three weeks ago, his landlord wanted him to pay in a few days, he said.
“It’s hard on my own,” Milton said. Her children are adults and live in Miami and North Carolina.
Robins said the DCA denied Milton’s rental assistance application because there was a duplicate application on file. No one knows how it happened, she said, and the DCA has not responded to requests for help on the case.
Unlike Barbara Brown, who was able to settle her situation, Milton’s case is still pending, Mathis said.
WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM
Georgia received two allocations of money from the United States Department of Treasury for the Georgia Rental Assistance Program, which began in March 2021. The program has been helping people financially crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic since March 13, 2020 .
Some of the funds go to the state, while others go to 12 cities and/or counties with populations over 200,000, said Adrion Bell, director of marketing and communications for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, in a statement. Georgia’s overall funding was $989 million.
“Funds are distributed to owners unless they refuse or are unable to participate,” he said. “In this case, the funds are distributed to tenants who must provide certification that they will use the funds to pay the rent.”
The program will pay up to 18 months’ rent and associated costs, he said.
To qualify for the program, renters must either be eligible for unemployment in Georgia, have experienced financial hardship since the start of the pandemic, demonstrate risk of homelessness, and meet income requirements (80% or less than median income households in their region).
Mathis said the problem with the rental assistance program is the pace at which snail applications are processed.
“There is no consistency in the process,” he said. “There is no communication with the DCA.”
The department has a high turnover rate of processing staff, which means applicants have to start all over with a new case manager who doesn’t know the details of their situation when the previous processor leaves, Mathis said.
The DAC disagrees.
“DCA has not experienced high turnover among processors (Economic Recovery Act)…Our attrition rate in this area is not higher than normal,” Bell said. “We have made several adjustments to improve our processing time and provide additional access and support to applicants. We have continued to grow our staff and have over 285 employees in our processing team, working days, evenings and weekends.
DCA staff can work from home or in person as a COVID-19 measure, allowing the department to ensure staff availability and avoid disruptions, he said.
Bell also said the department was not suffering from any budget issues that would affect the rental program.
The rental assistance program receives between 1,000 and 2,500 completed applications for assistance each week, Bell said.
Asked about DCA’s problems in distributing funds to tenants and landlords, he replied that “DCA has no major problems in distributing funds”.
“The DCA is spreading misinformation,” he said. “They have to stop saying there is no problem; there is a problem and they need to solve it.
EVEN THE ASSISTANTS NEED HELP
The South Georgia Partnership to End Homelessness, located in an office of the county social services center on Lee Street, is in need of financial assistance itself. Mathis said grant money had run out and the organization was relying on contributions, largely from local churches.
He applied for financial assistance under the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal economic stimulus package approved in 2021 to revive the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mathis is still waiting for news on the application.
The City of Valdosta and the Greater Valdosta United Way will distribute nearly $1 million in ARPA funds locally to nonprofit organizations.
Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson said Mathis submitted one of the best candidates.
The city has no plans to help people in immediate need of housing assistance, but instead invests in long-term plans for affordable housing, Matheson said.
“The purpose of a city is not to pay your rent,” he said. “If I could find a solution, I would be a white knight.”
The city has already earmarked $3.4 million for housing projects.
“Everything built in Lowndes is priced at prices I can’t afford,” the mayor said. “We need affordable housing.