After a year that demonstrated the importance of home, renters will now receive some form of relief from Congress’ latest stimulus package in 2021.
With the signing of the $900 billion COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill, lawmakers extended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) national eviction moratorium until February, preventing people from being evicted or removed from where they live. The bill also includes $25 billion in rental assistance for tenants who have fallen behind.
Researchers have found that evictions worsen the spread of COVID-19 as it can lead to crowding in with friends or family or ending up homeless. The funds from the bill will be targeted at households earning 50% of the area’s median income and below, and can cover up to 18 months of back rent. State governments will be responsible for disbursing the aid as they see fit.
To further help renters and landlords alike, the bill includes $600 stimulus checks and extended unemployment insurance. The uncertainty around negotiations, however, has made it difficult for families to plan. Until Dec. 27, when President Donald Trump signed the relief package, millions of renters nationwide believed they could be evicted in just over three days.
Habersham County Chief Magistrate Judge Gerald Johnson said there have been 186 eviction claims filed at the Magistrate’s Court office since March of 2020. Not all resulted in actual evictions. Each claim is handled on a case-by-case basis.
Nikki Morgan and her 6-year-old daughter are among the many who rent in Habersham. Over the summer, they were evicted from their mobile home. Her friend, Angela DeBruhl, created a GoFundMe account to raise enough money so she and her daughter could stay at a hotel while they looked for a new place to stay. Prior to the eviction, Morgan said she had lived in the home for eight years without any issues with payment.
“Every little bit helps,” Morgan said in reference to the new stimulus package. “Our situation was a little different from most evictions. I was renting to own and the man I was renting from started getting dementia and not remembering, so his daughter took over and she did not honor the agreement that he and I had. I had paperwork … but when I went to court the judge ruled in their favor and gave me seven days to get out.”
Morgan said she had been making payments on time in full, but after she stopped the automatic payments, she was served with eviction papers because the original agreement was not honored. The magistrate court, according to DeBruhl, upheld the eviction even with the paperwork she had as it was not viewed as legal. Morgan then paid a month’s rent and was allowed to stay, but was not able to find another place to rent after that.
She ended up staying at a hotel for six weeks with help from friends. But, again, she was unable to find a new place to rent and began to run out of money. With DeBruhl’s help, Morgan and her daughter found temporary housing for about 2 1/2 months provided by Habersham Homeless Ministries in Clarkesville, where she now works as a case manager for the homeless women’s shelter.
“It’s been a very hard year,” Morgan said, followed by a soft laugh. To make things harder, Morgan revealed that she tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
Currently, she’s renting a home for $900 a month down the road from Fairview Elementary School, where her young daughter goes to school. Morgan said that’s more than she’s ever had to pay. Previously, she paid $545 a month in rent. She shares the home with her 6-year-old grandson and 21-year-old daughter, who helps with what she can financially.
“The school actually recommended us to the sheriff’s office this year,” Morgan said. “On Dec. 12, they came and brought like $300 worth of groceries and stuff like that, which has really helped tremendously. Everything just worked out. It seemed like at every turn we were getting kicked down for a few months but I’m not one of those that gives up easily. We had a home for Christmas. When you have a 6-year-old that says, ‘Mom. I just want a home for Christmas’ – yeah, we’re blessed. Things are tight, but we’re blessed.”
County Manager Phil Sutton said that in 2019 the median per capita income of Habersham was $25,966 and the median household income was $50,563, according to estimates from the U.S. Census.
“Approximately 25.5% of households make 50% or less of the median household income,” he said. “Per the Census, there are approximately 15,139 households in Habersham so it is estimated 3,860 earn 50% or less of the median household income.”
However, these numbers are only estimates as the true income and number of households will not be known until the 2020 Census information is released.
Of the 15,139 households in Habersham, 11,848 are owner-occupied. Sutton said it is assumed the remaining 3,291 are rental units. Of those, it is estimated that 2,977 are paying rent. Again, these numbers are only estimates. Sutton explained that Habersham has a number of second homes and vacation homes, making the total number of rental units hard to track.
“The county and cities are actively trying to create more affordable housing options,” Sutton said. “An apartment complex has recently been constructed within Cornelia and there has been discussion of building an apartment complex within Baldwin. There are a number of townhouse developments under construction or in the planning stage within Habersham and it is hoped these will provide workforce housing options.”
Sutton said there are no programs at the local government level to provide income assistance. Assistance to households and individuals is handled at the state and/or federal level. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs, for example, has numerous housing assistance programs.
There’s also Ninth District Opportunity (NDO), which has an office in Cornelia. Among other things, NDO helps prevent families to not get evicted. Michael Fisher, NDO Housing Manger, said they have been receiving between 10 to 15 calls per day requesting financial help since the COVID-19 pandemic began. NDO received $806,100 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act for their eviction prevention program and hotel/motel vouchers months into the pandemic.
“One of our goals through the work that we do is to help landlords too. That’s how they make a living. We need them to be successful. … People need to understand that the eviction moratorium is not for rent forgiveness, it’s just a pause,” Fisher said.
Johnson also clarified that a copy of the CDC’s eviction moratorium must be presented to the landlord, owner of the residential property, or other person who has a right to have them evicted or removed from where they live if faced with eviction.
“Most of the COVID-19 restrictions apply to non-payment of rent, but do not cover lease violations, destruction of property and things like that which can also be reasons to dispossess someone,” Johnson said. “We haven’t stopped letting people file such claims. We’re just having to apply more precedents for each case than we did prior to COVID-19.”
To donate to Morgan’s GoFundMe, visit https://bit.ly/380i2MX.