Dalton forum highlights lack of options for low-income tenants

Dalton-Whitfield nonprofit agencies, government officials, tenants and others gathered in May at the Mack Gaston Community Center to confront one of the most pressing problems facing many of the nearly 20,000 county residents living below the poverty level: affordable housing. More specifically, the lack of it.

Community experts spoke on the need for affordable housing and the lack of such housing in the Dalton area. Attendees were able to ask questions in this forum-style presentation hosted by the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP).

"(Evictions) create instant poverty for our clients," said Cassandre Damas, staff attorney with GLSP's Eviction Prevention Project (EPP). Her presentation highlighted how having an eviction pushes tenants into low-quality housing -- housing that they wouldn't chose if they had more time to search or more affordable options.

Joining GLSP were several of Dalton's community leaders. Heather Donahue from the Dalton Organization of Churches United for People (DOC-UP) noted that agencies like DOC-UP that provide rental or utility assistance find the speed of the eviction a steep obstacle. Damas noted that Whitfield County's eviction process is especially quick because the Magistrate Court chooses to schedule the eviction hearing the day after the tenant files their answer.

Lauren Hall, the housing advocate for the Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center, spoke about the stereotypes surrounding survivors of domestic violence which lead to evictions and refusals to rent. Some of these obstacles have been mitigated thanks to legislation that took effect in 2018 that allows victims of domestic violence to terminate their lease with 30 days notice without being charged an early termination penalty. Obstacles remain, though, and obtaining safe, stable housing proves challenging for these survivors.

Jennifer Shearin, executive director of the Dalton-Whitfield Community Development Corp., linked the lack of affordable housing to the growing problem of homelessness. According to Shearin, the importance of the affordable housing problem cannot be overstated.

"The solution to homelessness is housing. Dalton-Whitfield's lack of affordable housing promotes a severely cost-burdened community, where families pay more than 35 percent of their household income for rent and utilities. That is why landlords can be predatory," said Shearing. "That's why we need affordable housing."

Steps are being taken to improve the state of housing throughout the city and county, but the process is hardly a simple one. Kimberly Roberts, who contracts with the city of Dalton to research and analyze local information pertaining to fair housing impediments and the distribution of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to improve the city, said that the average family trying to survive on minimum wage would need to work 2.5 jobs to afford housing. CDBG funding, however, is shrinking as Congress advocates for further reductions in the program.

State legislation will soon assist tenants seeking repairs to their rental housing. Susan Reif, GLSP's EPP director and GLSP's housing attorney, provided an overview of the Healthy Homes Act that takes effect on July 1 of this year. It will protect tenants who seek repairs from landlord retaliation. Landlords will no longer be able to retaliate against tenants who request repairs or file code enforcement complaints by increasing rent, terminating the tenancy or other retaliatory acts.

For more information about EPP, readers can email the housing program manager for GLSP at hbehnke@glsp.org.

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