We’re a month into the novel coronavirus’s impact on life in Atlanta, and by appearances, we have at least another month of disruption ahead. Which means that Atlanta’s rental market, and the city’s renters, are dealing with a unique and unexpected reality. This leaves a lot of questions to be answered, even if we think we’re weary of talking about COVID-19.
The hopefully temporary shutdown of myriad businesses around the city has led to large-scale unemployment—and anxiety about paying rent that renters may not have felt prior to the pandemic. Whether they were able to fork over rent at the beginning of April or not.
Then there’s moving into a new housing situation, which many Atlantans start doing when the weather breaks into spring. Is that even safe or legal anymore? Have they Lysoled?
Atlantans are worried, and concerns about what’s healthy and feasible are justified. The National Multifamily Housing Council and RentPage recently released a rent payment tracker showing that Atlanta experienced a 9.4-percent drop in the share of apartment homes that paid rent through April 5. That’s not as high as other cities, such as New Orleans, but things are definitely real.
Below are a few real answers that are hopefully helpful to residents of Atlanta and its surrounding municipalities who rent in these complex times.
I’m supposed to move May 1. Am I still allowed to do that?
The law doesn’t say you can’t. And moving-van rental companies such as U-Haul and Ryder are still leasing vehicles.
Among other exemptions listed when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp first announced the statewide shelter-in-place order on April 2 was this: A person is allowed to de-shelter if “performing necessary travel,” and engaged in the performance of, or travel to and from, the performance of Minimum Basic Operations for a business, establishment, corporation, nonprofit corporation, or organization not classified as Critical Infrastructure.”
That sounds like everybody who works, whether your job makes you part of what the Department of Homeland Security defines as the “essential critical infrastructure workforce,” can move around for work. Gov. Kemp’s updated order extended the original order from its April 13 expiration date to the end of April.
Bellhops, the app-based moving company that operates in Atlanta, Kennesaw, Alpharetta, and Marietta, says moving has been deemed an essential service, but the company is also waiving cancellation fees over COVID-19-related issues. Their FAQ answers questions about revised safety precautions and makes suggestions for anyone interested in assisting your hired movers with your move (spoiler: don’t).
Still, it’s not a bad idea to contact your preferred moving company and ask if they’re open for business right now and how they’re operating. Just as Georgia isn’t forcing them to stop working, it also isn’t subsidizing U-Haul.
Among the shelter-in-place exceptions are “workers who support moving and storage services.” So moving companies are still moving—but it’s at the discretion of individual firms.
I can’t make rent May 1. Will I be evicted?
It’s not likely, but technically not impossible. The national CARES Act prohibits eviction proceedings, fees, penalties “and other charges” for 120 days, starting March 27, but that only covers rental units in properties that participate in federal assistance programs, or are subject to federally backed mortgage loans, including multifamily mortgage loans. So if your landlord receives any sort of federal subsidies or has a loan owned or ensured by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the FHA, the VA, or USDA, you’re covered.
The CARES Act supplements the powers of state and city governments. In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, alongside Atlanta Housing CEO Eugene Jones Jr., have announced a number of relief efforts for anyone who has lost income due to COVID-19 and is currently renting a unit owned or subsidized by Atlanta Housing, including seniors and families. Housing Choice Voucher Program participants are included. More details are available at the housing authority’s online resource guide, and updates are being distributed on its social media channels.
Bottoms also issued an executive order in March asking the City of Atlanta’s Department of Grants and Community Development, Invest Atlanta, Atlanta Beltline Inc., Partners for Home, and Fulton County / City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, to institute a 60-day moratorium on residential evictions and filings.
Of course, asking doesn’t mean getting. As GeorgiaLegalAid.org points out, “Georgia has not entered a statewide order blocking foreclosure sales.” And if your eviction case was filed before March 27, it is not covered by the CARES Act. But there’s also the chance that courts are not hearing eviction cases, or any case for that matter, during the pandemic. Check on that before you consider eviction imminent.
Plus, surely there are better ways to become famous as an Atlanta landlord than being publicly criticized for evicting someone during an unforeseeable (and hopefully temporary) global economic crisis. Heck, if things improve soon, you know reality TV cameras will be filming up a storm all over town this summer.
Remember, delaying evictions and honoring moratoriums doesn’t mean an eviction can’t happen later. And evictions due to reasons other than nonpayment of rent or fees, such as crimes, are still allowed under the CARES Act. Read this summary and analysis from the National Housing Law Project, published March 28, for more.
And don’t forget: It takes a while to be evicted anyway. Brush up on the Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook for more details on the state’s rental laws.
What if my lease is expiring at the end of April?
Now would be a good time to talk to your landlord and negotiate staying past the end of the month, if that’s your intention. The Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook states that any “tenant-at-will”—which you are, if you either never had a written lease or it expired but your landlord has been allowing you to stay—must be given 60 days notice before the “lease” can be terminated. That usually doesn’t allow for situations in which you’re being evicted because you haven’t paid, but again, that’s what moratoriums are for.
What if I have an issue with my apartment—something breaks or I need an urgent repair?
Because Gov. Kemp’s order exempted mostly everyone who is working, you not only have the right to call for repair, you should expect it. Be sure to get a written response to your repair requests, in case you ever need to come before a judge.
If the landlord doesn’t respond, you can file a lawsuit; hire your own repairs person and request what’s known as a “repair-and-deduct”; notify a city, county, or local housing code enforcer; or just move out. But if that last option is really not an option at all, consider the ones before.
Can I break my lease early?
If you agreed to have the right to break your lease, you and your landlord are subject to the agreement terms. That could mean fees you’ve already said yes to paying.
Can my landlord raise the rent?
Yes. In America, your landlord can always raise the rent. They cannot do this during the term of the lease, unless they were allowed in the rental agreement you both signed, so always read carefully.
Can my landlord evict me if I contract COVID-19?
No. Fair Housing laws mean that you cannot be discriminated against due to a disability. Coronavirus is definitely a disability. (Well, not technically).
Are short-term rentals still available?
No. Starting April 9 and not ending until May 1, Gov. Kemp has banned all short-term rentals.