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For Georgia tenants, better screening laws key to affordable housing

Let’s start with the good news: In metro Atlanta, 120,403 fewer households faced eviction during the pandemic compared with 2019. Our state and local governments received nearly $1 billion in emergency rental assistance to reduce the number of evictions due to people becoming unable to pay rent during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the most well-funded emergency rental assistance program, run by the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), is not faring well. The most recent publicly available information shows that DCA had only spent 9% of the over $550 million it received. That 9% helped 9,738 households over seven months beginning in March 2021. Meanwhile, the five metro counties saw an average of 7,517 new eviction filings each month during the same period. Even after taking into account the assistance offered by similar programs run by the five metro counties and the city of Atlanta, roughly 15% of all metro households faced evictions during the pandemic.

In other words, many metro Atlanta families still faced evictions in a state that never placed a moratorium on evictions. And despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium, thousands of households were sued by their landlords each month during the pandemic. The reality is that many of those households will need to find housing in the coming months and years but their public records will now prevent them from accessing decent housing.

Before the pandemic, households struggled with eviction records.

There is not enough affordable housing for low-income Georgians. According to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, roughly 165,000 extremely low-income households rent in the metro Atlanta area, but only about 48,000 affordable homes are available. Many households spend more than half of their monthly income on rent, leaving little room for savings or insurance.

They are then left in a precarious situation where a late or missed paycheck, an unexpected bill or a medical emergency can quickly result in eviction and temporary homelessness. The eviction record then follows them, making it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing close to work, transportation and well-resourced schools.

Ultimately, many families are left without homes at all. And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “An estimated 39,100 Georgia schoolchildren lived in shelters, on the street, doubled up with other families, or in hotels or motels during the 2016-2017 school year.” Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education shows Georgia has the nation’s fourth-highest number of school-age children who live in motels.

Georgia has no laws protecting tenants in the screening process. The only constraints landlords face come from the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits property owners from discriminating against people based on their race, national origin, disability or whether they have kids. Because of the disparate impact that screening policies can have on people, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has addressed the use of criminal records in tenant background checks.

But not discriminating is a low bar. It will not desegregate our neighborhoods and schools, and it will not ensure that families evicted during the pandemic have the opportunity to get back on their feet. Georgia families deserve greater protections to thrive.

Georgia lawmakers need to address the barriers that people face due to tenant screening. Those reforms should include a method for sealing eviction cases automatically, except in narrow circumstances. If you won a lawsuit against the property owner, settled a case with the property owner, or the property owner dismissed the eviction against you, that record should not prevent you from renting in the future.

In addition, lawmakers should require property owners to give people clear information before they apply and pay an application fee. Most people would not apply for a job if they did not know whether they met the employer’s minimum qualifications. But unless HUD subsidizes the property, many property owners do not provide written screening criteria to applicants or a detailed reason the property owner denied a person’s application. A study by the Zillow Group, a real estate information company, found that renters applied to over three properties on average before finding a home. Lawmakers should not leave families in the dark about a property owner’s criteria for renting or why a property owner denied their application.

Please join us in urging your state legislators to prioritize Georgians who rent and to pass legislation that makes housing fairer for everyone.

Wingo Smith is a regional policy analyst for the SPLC Action Fund.

Photo at top: Protesters rally across the street from the Efficiency Lodge, an extended stay hotel they say is illegally evicting residents while failing to maintain the property, on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Decatur, Georgia. (AP/Ron Harris)