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As Rents Rise, So Do Pressures on People at Risk of Eviction

ATLANTA — Every time Jeffery Jones hears a noise outside his house, his heart skips a beat. Since his landlord directed the county to evict him, his fiancée and their 2-year-old son from their modest gray house in the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, Ga., it is just a matter of time before the noise he hears is the knock of a sheriff’s deputy.

After losing their jobs early in the coronavirus pandemic, the couple quickly fell behind on the $1,400 monthly rent. They applied for federal rental assistance, but county officials say they never received necessary materials from the landlord and were unable to process the application, a claim disputed by the property manager.

The couple has spent months searching for another place, which they could pay for with rental assistance money, but with even the furthest reaches of the Atlanta suburbs seeing spikes in rents, they seem out of options.

“There is nowhere to go,” said Mr. Jones, adding that houses in his area are renting for hundreds of dollars more than before the pandemic began. An open house last month for a rare $900-a-month home drew a line of cars up and down the block. Mr. Jones turned around and drove home: With an eviction on his record and his credit sunk by the owed rent, he knew he could not compete.

With their belongings already packed in boxes, the couple expanded their search further and further, outside of the school district they carefully chose for their son and a long drive from family and friends. They have applied to several homes, at a cost of up to $100 in application fees for each, but received no replies.

“It’s not just this area, it’s everywhere in Georgia,” Mr. Jones said. “Probably everywhere in America.”

Tenants and advocates have dreaded a wave of evictions that was predicted to follow the end of the federal ban on evictions during the pandemic. Yet in many areas nationwide, eviction filings have increased only moderately since the Supreme Court ruled President Biden’s extension of the eviction moratorium unconstitutional. Evictions remain well below prepandemic averages, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

But those numbers do not capture evictions, like Mr. Jones’s, that were filed during the pandemic but are only now being executed — right as rents surge far beyond prepandemic prices and the budgets of many renters.

Rents rose 10.3 percent annually in professionally managed apartments in the third quarter of 2021, according to data from RealPage, a real estate data analytics firm, as vacancy rates plunged below 3 percent for the first time in three decades. Adjusted rents rose by $150 from the start of the pandemic to $1,580. Those numbers do not capture prices of units owned by smaller landlords, which tend to be more affordable.

The heightened strain on available housing has strengthened the position of landlords.

“Landlords seem anxious to move tenants out so they can go out and take advantage of those higher rents,” said Zach Neumann, director of the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado.

Skyrocketing rents are blunting the effectiveness of emergency rental assistance, the only federal tool remaining for struggling renters, as landlords decide not to extend leases and then raise rents beyond what existing tenants can afford, Mr. Neumann said. Other tenants are being displaced as landlords rush to sell buildings amid a booming market.

Landlord associations say the rent increases represent the market catching up after the pandemic lull to adequately reflect the shortage of supply.

And large and small landlords say they have struggled during the pandemic, too, as tenants fell behind on rent and evictions were halted. Paxton Baety, who rents out four single-family homes in DeKalb County, Ga., said lost rental income as his tenants missed payments during the pandemic forced him to dip into retirement savings to keep up with his property taxes and delay medical care.

Many say they also faced difficulties navigating the red tape and long delays of the federal rental assistance program. It took months for Atlantica Properties, which owns 200 affordable housing units in Atlanta, to receive its first checks, according to Darion Dunn, its managing partner.

“There’s a lot of discouragement out there because we’re not getting the financial help at a speed that can help us stay afloat,” he said.

Low- and moderate-income renters in Atlanta have faced rising housing prices for years as areas gentrify and luxury housing replaces more affordable options. In 2019, nearly a quarter of renters in the city were paying more than half of their income on housing, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Corporate landlords have bought up properties across the metro area, and research shows that they are more likely than other owners to evict tenants.

The current surge in prices has pushed the affordable housing shortage into overdrive, as tenants compete for the few affordable units available, with little, if any, pandemic protection or assistance remaining.

“Poor and working-class people who were already hard-pressed to find a truly affordable place to live now are in a completely impossible position,” said Tara Raghuveer, the director of KC Tenants, an advocacy organization in Kansas City, Mo., and the housing campaign director at People’s Action, a national advocacy organization.

When Samira Young’s landlord told her she had to catch up on the two months of rent she owed at her Decatur home or get out, she did not want to wait around for the court-ordered eviction notice. She sent her four children to stay with her mother in South Carolina and moved into a motel just off the highway in nearby Tucker, Ga., with only a suitcase.

“I just pray within a few weeks or maybe a month or so, I can move in somewhere,” Ms. Young said, after returning from her new job at a shipping warehouse to her dimly lit room at a Masters Inn, a gray L-shaped building overlooking a tarp-covered pool.

Some motel guests have been there for months, but Ms. Young is determined to keep her stay shorter and has been trying to save up for an apartment deposit.

The motel costs, however, take a big cut out of her paycheck. She has bounced between several in search of the cheapest rate, paying anywhere between $47 and nearly $100 per night. Some nights, she sleeps in her car to save money.

Organizations in Atlanta that provide long-term housing for homeless people say that the surge in rents has made their work even more difficult. In the past, the Veterans Empowerment Organization could almost always find permanent housing for participants in its transitional housing program, according to Tony Kimbrough, its chief executive. But now, he said, finding housing is “almost a nightmare.”

He said that 50 of the 92 veterans currently at his center were waiting for a vacant unit, with the waiting list growing every day.

Tenant advocates say the federal rental assistance — Congress set $46.5 billion aside — was never going to be a long-term solution to a crisis that far predates the pandemic.

“The people that are struggling are still going to be struggling when the money runs out,” said Monica DeLancy, whose organization, We Thrive in Riverside Renters Association, advocates for tenants in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta, which Ms. DeLancy says was “wall to wall with evictions prior to Covid.”

When Ashlee Reynolds was approved for over $11,000 of federal rental assistance funds to help pay off months of unpaid rent, she thought she had made it to the end of a painful stretch. She has fallen behind on rent several times over the years, struggling to keep up with her bills and provide for her five children on her salary as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. She has spent years on Section 8 waiting lists, she said.

She was desperate to hold on to this apartment, which she said was among the cheapest she could find that felt safe and comfortable enough to share with four of her children. The school that two of her children attend is nearby; her youngest son’s day care is across the street. The church close by has provided the family with assistance since Ms. Reynolds’s mother, who was a member, died in 2018. Her daughter’s baby, who died after being born prematurely, is buried in a cemetery up the road.

With the rent taken care of, she looked forward to buying a car; she had lost the lease on one after she stopped driving for Lyft early in the pandemic. With limited public transportation to her suburban neighborhood, she pays about $200 a week to get her family around.

But then, in August, her property manager put her on a month-to-month lease and added a $75 fee to the $1,185-a-month rent. When Ms. Reynolds asked to renew the yearly lease instead, the manager refused, citing her delayed rent payments.

“It just devastated me,” Ms. Reynolds said. “I fought so hard to keep this place.”

Her salary is not two or three times the rent as required by most nearby apartments. She found two apartments that she can afford nearby but is waiting until her next paycheck to cover the $250 application fee for each.

“Last night, I just had to pray really, really hard, because it gets to me,” she said. “I want my kids to have a home. This is our home — it’s not the best place in world, but it’s our home. And I wanted to maintain that.”

Sean Keenan contributed reporting.

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