Thursday, April 15, 2021

How landlords are getting richer off of late fees and rental assistance

 By Jay Ahmed, ATLEJ Home Defender


Two things have happened over the last 6 months: 61 ultra-wealthy billionaire landlords saw their wealth increase by $24.4 billion, and I worked as an Enrollment Specialist for a non-profit organization that was one of dozens contracted by the City of Atlanta to distribute well over $20,000,000 in COVID-19 emergency housing relief aid. I will explain how the two are related. The organization I worked for, and most other organizations that distribute rental assistance, operated under a basic system of:

1. Having individuals fill out applications for assistance.

2. Screening applicants to ensure they have valid leases, mortgages, and financial documents proving COVID-19 hardship. 

3. Filling out income verification forms, eligibility letters, W9's, landlord rental verification forms for applicants with leases, among other forms.


Once we verified with landlords or property managers that applicants were indeed current residents with outstanding balances, we would then submit the complete application to the data team/financial department for checks to be sent out and files audited. 


Within its first few months, the popularity of the program had spread and it was not long before an influx of applicants and a lack of staffing caused my nonprofit's quality checks and standard practices to loosen. Specifically, after 3 months of administering the program, our rule stating that applicants needed to have an outstanding balance was not practiced. It became common to have applicants applying for prospective rental assistance-- for example, John applies for May rental assistance in April, before May rent is due.


Because the process time from application to check takes about a month, we began to pay property managers and utility companies for individuals who in the beginning of the program would not be qualified to receive assistance. 


Additionally, late fees were not paid by the COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Fund at first, but a revision changed that. Our "training" stated that it was our responsibility to negotiate late fees with property managers or landlords, but after speaking to a majority of my co-workers I found that none of them negotiate late fees. 


Late fees can often make up 20%-35% of the assistance we send to property managers and landlords. When this is extrapolated, the amount of financial assistance wasted on landlords immorally charging tenants late fees during a pandemic and economic crisis is morally disturbing. What is worse is that my nonprofit facilitated this on a daily basis. 


I would often catch individuals applying with what I knew was an obvious fake lease and forged separation letter. When I would bring these concerns to my manager, I would often be told "you're not paid to be a detective" or something similar in a dismissive fashion. To my supervisors' credit, they were just trying to logistically get through as many applications as possible. But an important observation I made while working in that system is that the City of Atlanta (and most of Georgia) has virtually no regulations for what can considered reasonable late fees. I’ve seen late fees that charge $15 for every day the rent is late, with no cap limit. The contractual language in the leases I’ve seen are textbook ‘predatorial’. 


Nonetheless, this pandering to landlords and misuse of government funds specifically meant to help tenants is a microcosm of the bigger issue at hand: the continued wealth extraction from poor communities of color by thieving landlords, rental assistance organizations that enable landlords, and the courts and law that make these egregious acts legal. 

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