Ramon Lopez lives in a trailer home with his two dogs in the East Mobile Home Park just south of Atlanta. On the weekends, his four kids, all under age nine, usually stay with him. But that’s been harder these last few weeks since his landlord cut off his water supply in early August. When his children come over, he now takes them straight to the park. At least there are working toilets there.
Last month, Lopez’s landlord, Steve Warner, filed an eviction order against him, citing lack of rent payment in June and according to court documents “rules violations.” Lopez says he tried to pay but Warner wouldn’t accept the money. He showed up to the Fulton County Courthouse one day after the deadline to file a response to the eviction order, ready to explain his side of the story. The court denied Lopez’s motion to reconsider and served him an eviction order. And despite the extension of the CDC’s eviction moratorium until October 2nd, he could be evicted from his home any day now.
That’s because renters aren’t automatically protected by the moratorium. There’s a crucial step that needs to happen first - they have to fill out a declaration form. It’s a document tenants have to fill, sign and give to their landlord that states they’ve experienced pandemic induced hardship.
Lopez says he had no idea about any government protections for renters. He says he’s never heard of the CDC. “I’m working or I’m fixing things. And I can’t read very well,” he says. He doesn’t think any of his neighbors are aware of it either.
Viraj Parmar, who runs the Housing Court Assistance Center, a program of the Atlanta Volunteers Lawyers Foundation, says many of the tenants he assists don’t know about the need to fill out the declaration. If they don't speak English, it's even less likely that they know about it. “The CDC protections aren’t automatic. The renter has to invoke their right through the tenant declaration. If you haven’t completed the declaration, you’re not protected.”
The CDC website includes the tenant declaration form translated into 11 different languages. But it’s not clear what they're doing to get it into the hands of those who need it most. When approached to comment on any outreach effort, the CDC didn’t respond.
“It’s not as simple as people knowing what the moratorium is and being eligible and then seeking that protection,” says Alpa Amin, the Executive Director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN). “With even the rental assistance that was being distributed in the community, there are certain requirements that they have to institute. It’s made it so difficult for the people who needed the help to get it. It was almost as if it wasn’t designed with those people in mind.”
Because so many undocumented community members weren’t able to access much needed government aid, Amin’s organization felt compelled to step up and work on housing issues - something they had never done before, paying rent for 68 families for three months in 2020.
“We’re talking about families that have not just language barriers, but varying education levels and particularly the survivors we work with are isolated from all aspects of the community. At least pre-pandemic you could go to church, or the community center... now they’re very much in the confines of their family, home, and that makes it challenging for them to even learn about what's available,” says Amin.
Many in Atlanta’s immigrant communities just aren’t versed in housing rights. According to Georgia Code Section 44-7-14.1., it is unlawful for a landlord to cut off utilities. “I believe most tenants have an inkling that turning off the utilities is wrong or unfair, but they may not realize that -- when a landlord takes that action -- it is in fact illegal,” says Parmar.
Ramon Lopez’s landlord didn’t respond to a request to comment on the lack of water, or the eviction.
As for Lopez, he recently started working again at Pallet Source, a company that builds and dismantles pallets for trucks. It’s tough manual work, and each day, at the end of a long shift he comes home to his trailer and gives water to his two dogs from bottles. If he has to shower, he travels 30 minutes to a friend’s place.
He’s not sure what he’s going to do next, or if he’ll be allowed to stay in his home.
“I know the landlord is profiting off of me and the entire community...we’re always paying fees for something. I want a chance to speak to the judge. I want to be able to tell my story. Because even if I’m evicted, I want to get this out because I don’t want what’s happening to continue…”