State agency turns over $80 million in unspent rental assistance funds to metro Atlanta counties

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Reporting by Sean Kenan:

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has released $80.6 million in federal rental assistance funds to five metro Atlanta counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Henry, Clayton, and Hall — that have already spent their own federal funds to help tenants facing eviction, with thousands more seeking aid.

Fulton County announced Feb. 10 that it had received $25 million from the DCA and was making it available to applicants struggling to cover rent and utilities amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

Fulton’s announcement indicates that a portion of the almost $1 billion the DCA received in federal emergency rental assistance (ERA) cash last year is on its way to metro Atlanta counties with far better track records of getting the emergency rental aid to those in need.

The U.S. Treasury Department approved the transfer to the county eviction-prevention programs in January, with $25 million apiece going to Fulton and DeKalb, $15 million to Henry, $9 million to Clayton, and $6.6 million to Hall counties. 

Many renters and landlords “still need help, even two years after the pandemic began,” Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts said in the announcement. “While the economy has made a strong recovery, there are still many in our community who have been left behind.”

The DCA received nearly $1 billion in two rounds of federal ERA funding last year — $552.3 million in ERA1 and $437 million in ERA2 — to administer Georgia’s statewide eviction-prevention program. The Treasury Department disbursed an additional $157.9 million to some of the state’s most populous counties and cities.

But by January — a full year later — the DCA had only distributed about $68 million, or 12.3%, of the $552.3 million in emergency rental aid it received in the first round of federal funding. Amid sharp criticism from tenant advocacy groups and Democratic legislators, the DCA volunteered in December to turn over $80.6 million in unspent federal funds to the five metro Atlanta counties, which had received a combined $61.7 million in ERA1 funds and already disbursed most or all of that cash.

Otherwise, the state agency faced returning the money to the Treasury Department, after failing to meet the federal minimum disbursal target of 30% by Sept. 30. The Treasury Department required the DCA to submit a program improvement plan on Nov. 15.

Fulton’s program has set the gold standard in Georgia for disbursing federal ERA funds. According to the county, it has approved 6,937 applications for rent and utility assistance out of the 22,538 it’s received since March 1, 2021. The Fulton rent relief program is open to county residents outside of the city of Atlanta.

Even after using up its two federal ERA allocations, Fulton’s announcement said, the county never closed applications for lack of funding. Instead, it advanced $4 million in local funding to its rental assistance program while waiting on the $25 million DCA transfer. 

The county has worked proactively to get the rent relief funds into the hands of those needing help. It removed the monetary cap on assistance requests, allowing applicants to ask for full rent and utility bill relief for up to 18 months, and it deployed case managers to local eviction proceedings in magistrate court to get the word out about the program, according to the announcement.

Representatives from DeKalb, Henry, Clayton, and Hall counties have not yet said if they’ve received the additional DCA funds and opened up applications for people seeking rental assistance. 

People should be able to apply for that money soon, according to state and federal officials. DCA spokesperson Adrion Bell told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email Friday that the agency has completed the necessary steps to reallocate the funds to the counties, and that the Treasury Department disburses the actual funds. A Treasury Department spokesperson did not have information on Friday as to whether the counties have made the money available. 

Fulton County residents outside the city of Atlanta can find out if they are eligible for rental assistance and submit an application at www.fultoncountyga.gov/renthelp, or call 855-776-7912 to speak to a live agent Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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