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Tenants Denied Rent Relief Express Outrage Over City’s $10M in Unused Funds

Residents and landlords wonder why federal aid didn’t make its way to predominantly Black complexes in need.

Atlanta resident Tamicka Royal stands outside her apartment complex in the city’s Sweet Auburn district. Royal says she was initially approved for rent assistance, only to be told later that a state agency had reversed its decision. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Cherie Miller was angry Monday morning when she heard that city leaders had announced plans to send $10 million in unused COVID-19 rent relief funds back to the federal government.

The 55-year-old grandmother is in the process of being evicted from the Capitol Gateway Apartments near Downtown, where she’s been renting for the past 11 years.

“Why can’t you finish helping people who are homeless and those of us who are trying not to be homeless?” Miller asked.

News of the funds sent shockwaves across the city, which has been grappling with housing affordability issues and rising rents. It motivated several Black locals, including Miller and Capitol Gateway community engagement coordinator Cynthia Ballard, to confront City Council members about the matter during a Monday afternoon public meeting.

“It’s not fair for a lot of people to have to be on the streets,” Miller told her elected leaders at City Hall. “There’s a lot of homelessness going on out here, and it’s not that people want to be homeless. It’s because we’re being put in a position where we have to be homeless.”  

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program originally sent $989 million in pandemic rent aid to Georgia. Since March 2021, staffers at the state Department of Community Affairs and its partner group, the United Way, have worked to distribute those funds.

Mohamed Balla, Atlanta’s chief financial officer, said the U.S. Treasury and the state of Georgia made $21 million in relief funds available to the city.

“We were able to deploy $11 million to help residents in the city of Atlanta,” Balla said. “Twelve thousand households have been helped through the city of Atlanta.”

The deadline to use the remaining funds was Dec. 31, 2022. 

City officials have since clarified that they aren’t “sending back” $10 million to the federal government. “The funds remain with the U.S. Treasury, where they always were,” a spokesperson for Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said Thursday via email.

It’s an answer, but not a reprieve for residents like Miller who said they applied for and were denied aid money through the Georgia Rental Assistance program before officials announced in late October that they were no longer accepting applications

Landlord Cersi Bunnell also spoke during the council meeting. She manages the Ashley Auburn Pointe, a 186-unit apartment complex in the city’s Sweet Auburn district. She said the property’s tenants are predominantly Black. 

Some of her tenants who have applied for rental assistance lost their jobs during the pandemic and had been living on unemployment.

“There are some people who could not find another job and just gave up,” she said. “There’s some people who are still looking.”

One of Bunnell’s tenants, Tamicka Royal, said DCA approved her rent relief application in October 2021, not long after she received an eviction notice for an estimated $9,000 in unpaid rent. She said a DCA staffer later told her the agency had reversed its decision.

“They said they didn’t have a way to get the money to my landlord,” Royal said. “They were supposed to be trying to get the money to me, but that never happened.”

The single mother, who owns her own property management company, appealed DCA’s decision and has been waiting to hear back from the agency. She said she was sad to learn about the funds.

“They make you jump through all these hoops,” Royal said. “You send back $10 million worth of funds because you can’t find people to help? … All you have to do is just walk down the street.”

During Monday’s council meeting, Balla tried to clarify how the city handled its rent relief fund allocation. He told those in attendance that the city was successful in deploying the $23 million in rental assistance it received through the CARES Act in 2020.

The Emergency Rental Assistance program was divided into two parts, according to Balla. Part one required applicants to have COVID-19-relatedreasons for requesting aid, but part two only required applicants to show they had suffered “economic hardship.”

He said the economic hardship program doesn’t end until 2025, so there could be paths toward finding other relief funding. “However that plays out, we will be sure to communicate those results to the City Council and the public as well,” he said.

Atlanta resident Cherie Miller stands outside her apartment in the city’s Capitol Gateway neighborhood. She says she may be forced to move in with family if she can’t get rent relief. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

The added aid likely won’t come in enough time to help Miller, who said she’s two months behind on rent and doesn’t make enough working part-time hours for Amazon to keep up with her past-due balance payment plan.

She’s planning to move in with family if she can’t find a way to get rent relief by Feb. 20, when her next past-due payment is due.

She says wages and salaries in Georgia aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.

“The government wants to go up on everything, but they don’t want to go up on income,” Miller said. “I keep hearing about how the government wants Atlanta to be New York and LA, but you’re not paying what New York and LA are paying to live there.”