Rent is Due - Now What?
Afonso’s eviction notice in March wasn’t his family’s first. They were almost evicted in November, but he managed to scrape up enough money by driving for Uber. Now, COVID-19 has stolen his job and left his family with no source of income. As rent is due in days, Afonso, with his wife and son, find themselves in their leaky Atlanta apartment with a landlord that still demands money they don’t have.
America’s lowest income families are days away from falling into homelessness. Nearly 25 percent of renters in America are spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent. 
As May’s rent is quickly approaching, these vulnerable families who have lost their jobs to COVID-19 must navigate an abrupt transition to homelessness.
When facing a once in a lifetime crisis, it’s nearly impossible for the average U.S. family to be properly prepared. Roughly 40 percent of Americans do not have more than $400 in savings.  When you pair the lack of sustainable support with a virus that has stripped away 27 million jobs, it creates a storm too strong for many households to withstand.
“One of the big issues we are facing is evictions of people who are in extended stay motels. Many of our clients have stayed in these motels for a long time, some for years. The position of most of these motels is that the clients are not ‘tenants’ no matter how long they have stayed, and because they are not tenants they do not have the right to protect themselves through the eviction process. Clients who are tenants have to get an eviction, and with the courts closed, have some time to get things worked out. Not so for people in the motels.” – Legal Aid Atlanta
In Georgia alone, nearly 14 percent of the renter population was living in extended-stay hotels before the pandemic,  the highest percentage across the country.
While we may hear stories of gracious landlords working with residents through these times, there are just as many, if not more, stories of residents and landlords who are not able, or not willing, to come to a compromise.
“The property has issues with leaking and mold, and it’s affecting my health. However the landowners don’t do anything about this, they just cover up the problems and still demand my money,” says Afonso.
National and local governments are enacting legislation to protect renters, however, the need far outweighs the measures being taken. The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, prohibits evictions until July 25th, but it only supports renters in federally-subsidized rental properties, which account for one in four rental properties. Of the 17.6 million households eligible for rental assistance, 75 percent are not receiving any due to shortfalls in federal spending on top of rising rent costs. 
As a country, we’re days away from seeing the domino fall that will force the most at-risk U.S. families into empty streets and overcrowded shelters.
Much of the tension between renters and landlords lies in the ambiguity of national and local legislation. Without a clear, centralized database displaying properties protected by the CARES Act, both parties are left in a state of confusion. Many low-income families do not have the proper resources to adequately educate themselves on their constantly-shifting rights as a renter. Plenty of landlords are just as confused and are resorting to operating as they normally would. As many courts are closed, there are some landlords executing their own form of evictions by leveraging families’ vulnerabilities. Fear is driving many protected families out of their homes.
“I’m scared to ask for help because of my immigration status,” said one woman we spoke with who fears eviction can strike at any moment.
As some property owners issue illegal eviction notices, many families have nowhere to turn for help. Due to a lack of knowledge of their rights or fear of being exposed, they resort to leaving a home they have the right to stay in.
We’re at the tipping point of our country’s most at-risk communities moving into homelessness in the middle of a moment we’re all told we can stay safe by staying home. Since many at-risk families are spending more than half of their income on rent, providing rent relief is an immediate action that creates margin for them during this crisis.
Of the renter population in Georgia, there are more than 400,000 families who are considered at high risk of eviction. With 1 in 5 people living in Atlanta currently unemployed, and the city boasting the worst wealth inequality across the country, we could see a record-breaking number of evictions as soon as the moratoriums are lifted.
Rent support buys families time and space to continue to safely shelter when homes have never mattered more.
After our team surveyed 200 of the most vulnerable metro-Atlanta families, we found the average monthly income to be $277 a month while their average rent is around $900 a month. Prior to the pandemic, these families were living off of $1,731 a month and spending on average 66 percent of their income on rent. These families were living from paycheck to paycheck before the crisis, and are lost as to how they will manage to pay the next few months of rent without pay.
“I’m worried about the month of May. I don’t have any money to pay for my rent, and I don’t have any other place to live,” said Elena, a single mother with a 6-year-old child.
These families are not protected under an eviction moratorium. Many of these families with children are asylum seekers, refugees, or immigrants who have not yet received a social security number.
Isabella, a single mother of two children, has a husband who is in jail. She currently lives and works in the same hotel, but has very few hours of pay due to COVID-19 halting much of the hospitality industry. She is in the process of getting a U visa certification to start her case, but COVID-19 has made that process much more difficult.
Similarly, Maya worked as a driver until COVID-19 prevented her from doing so. Since she stopped driving in March, her driver’s license and visa have expired. Since the DMV is closed, she is at a loss as to how she will work and pay for this month’s rent.
While COVID-19 is moving many of us closer together in our homes, it is moving many of America’s low-income families closer to the streets. Our fast paced lives tend to distract us from noticing our vulnerable neighbors as much as we’d like. However, as COVID-19 slows our speed of living, may it heighten and broaden our awareness.
We’re seeing how each of our actions affect those around us. We stay home so the whole can stay healthy, and we wear masks in hopes of not spreading sickness. Communities are seen for the circle of dominoes they are–as one falls, we all follow.
Our most vulnerable families are days away from falling. May we notice and play our part in helping them stay safe in their own home.
- America’s Rental Housing 2020 – Joint Center for Housing … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Harvard_JCHS_Americas_Rental_Housing_2020.pdf
- Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2017-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201805.pdf
- Digest of Education Statistics, 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_204.75d.asp
- Redmon, J. (2020, March 26). Immigrants, refugees in Georgia vulnerable amid coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.ajc.com/news/breaking-news/immigrants-refugees-georgia-vulnerable-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/pJJFmzOZzyiUTJRyiEBzoM/
- Georgia Refugee Statistics 1995-2020. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/GEO/georgia/refugee-statistics
- Shearer, L. (2020, April 17). 1 in 5 Georgians now out of work in COVID-19 slowdown. Retrieved from https://www.onlineathens.com/news/20200417/1-in-5-georgians-now-out-of-work-in-covid-19-slowdown