Professional apartment owners and managers are extremely sensitive to both the emotional and financial impact of an eviction. While a necessary part of the rental housing business, eviction is utilized by professional owners and managers only as a last resort when all efforts have been made to reach an agreement with the resident. A few bad actors aside, Atlanta’s housing providers have been exceedingly patient and flexible over the past three years while some residents failed to pay rent, apply for assistance or are actively engaging in criminal activity.
In 2019, an eviction in Atlanta took an average of 60 days from the first missed payment to the Fulton County Marshal actually knocking on the door. Today, this process takes more than a year. There are currently over 19,000 cases backlogged in the Fulton County courts and Marshal’s office, more than half of which are over six months old, according to the Fulton County Magistrate Court.
At the onset of the pandemic, courts rightfully shuttered across the nation to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone. In 2021, those same courts and communities gradually opened back up and resumed operations – seemingly everywhere except in metro Atlanta.
The backlog is not ending with the courts. Once a ruling is issued by the court, all evictions in Georgia must be supervised by a Marshal or Sheriff. The Fulton and DeKalb County Marshals have also been unable to keep up with the accumulation of cases, allowing the backlog to grow even further. Today, there are a combined 4,500 cases that have made their way through the courts in Fulton and DeKalb and are stalled in the Marshal’s office, according to the Magistrate Court and DeKalb County Marshal. This adds an additional four or more months to the process.
Our multifamily members who own properties across the U.S. report that no other markets nationwide are experiencing such incredible delays and, as a result, local rental property owners and their paying residents are paying the price.
A conservative estimate based on Magistrate Court and rental data of the total lost rent due to these delays in Fulton County alone comes to over $265 million. In response, apartment communities are tightening application standards for income and credit and increasing security deposit amounts to protect against the risk of the extended and nearly impossible eviction process. Larger property owners and management companies have barely been able to weather the delay, passing some of the loss on to residents in annual rent increases, as has become the expectation and norm in Georgia. Smaller operators, local owners (those who don’t have portfolios outside of Georgia), and naturally occurring affordable housing providers simply cannot. They are being forced to sell their properties to larger, out-of-state investment companies or face bankruptcy and the loss of their livelihoods.
That’s not the only way Atlanta’s renters are paying for the courts’ and marshals’ lack of resources. Eviction filings due to breach of the lease contract, such as when a resident commits a crime or threatens another resident or staff member, require the same extended legal process even though their conduct may threaten the health, safety, and welfare of other residents in the community. There is currently no way to expedite or prioritize these cases at the Magistrate Court or Marshal’s department, which allows for greater deterioration of public safety in the communities where these criminal violators are allowed to maintain illegal residence.
Many of our members are reporting that they are making greater investments in community safety than ever before but, when a resident or their guests are engaging in criminal activity on the property, they now have no legal recourse to remove that threat.
A member recently shared a story from the perspective of a resident, who has lived in her modest but comfortable apartment near Lindbergh for the past four years. She is surrounded by two neighbors on either side who have had evictions pending since spring of last year. One no longer lives in the unit (or pays rent) but has listed it on Airbnb and loud parties are held on a regular basis, interrupting her and her child’s sleep. On the other side, a resident (that also stopped paying rent in February 2022) has a constant flow of visitors, regular smell of drugs, and noise at all hours of the day and night, to the point she fears for her safety. The property manager, also wary of confronting the potentially violent occupants, has begged law enforcement to help remove the criminal element from the property or move the pending evictions forward but is told “there is nothing they can do.”
The frustrated resident’s rent went up when she renewed her lease last fall. What she didn’t know was that 18 percent of the property – 37 of the 200 units in her building – have stopped paying rent but refuse to vacate the premises, threatening the financial viability of the property.
On the other side of town, a local Atlantan that owns a small number of rental properties and makes every effort to work with his residents and keep his rents as affordable as possible, is concerned for the sustainability of his business and Atlanta’s housing market at large. The current backlog, coupled with his willingness to go above and beyond to help his residents, has left him with some occupied units where the resident has not paid rent for over two years.
This unacceptable scenario is now entering its third year and isn’t sustainable for any size property owner. Action is needed now. Our local and state officials must recognize this problem and provide appropriate resources and political support to the Fulton and DeKalb County Magistrate Courts and Marshal Departments.
Without officials and constituents asking questions and taking action to demand a return to normal operating procedures, the problem and consequential hits to the safety and affordability of rental housing will only escalate.
Jim Fowler is President of the Atlanta Apartment Association, which represents over 1,200 member companies and over 800 businesses that provide products and services to the industry.