ATLANTA — Dozens of Georgians tell Channel 2 Action News they’re desperate to understand why they were denied critical aid they believe they qualify for.
After previous reporting on pandemic relief aid for Georgia renters, Channel 2 investigative reporter Ashli Lincoln heard from viewers struggling to understand why Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs denied their claims.
“It keeps me up at night,” East Atlanta renter Ceylan Odunkesenler told Lincoln. “I feel like I’m trapped.”
Odunkesenler and her partner were restaurant workers when the pandemic hit. They’ve struggled to pay bills and rising rent.
Including late fees, Odunkesenler said she owes her landlord $23,000.
“At this point I’ve done everything I know to do,” Odunkesenler said. “You can’t pay something that you don’t have. I do not have $23,000.”
In December 2021, Odunkesenler applied for federal rental assistance through DCA because she believed she met the qualifications for the program. She supplied the state with tax forms and eviction notices to show she met financial hardship and income requirements.
But after six months of waiting, she logged into DCA’s online portal to learn she’d been denied help.
“What’s the response you get from the state when you try to reach out to them?” Lincoln asked.
“Crickets,” Odunkesenler said. “Nothing. No response.”
DeKalb County resident Nicole Hart showed Lincoln paperwork she believed proved she also qualified for the rental relief.
Hart is an independent landlord who rented out the basement of her Ellenwood home after her family catering business stopped during the pandemic.
“Times were getting rough,” Hart said.
But her tenant caught COVID-19, and because of long-haul symptoms, they continue to struggle to find employment.
Hart didn’t want to evict her tenant, so she applied for the rental assistance program in August 2021. Nearly 11 months later, she learned she too was denied.
“Did the state give you a specific exact reason why your application was denied?” Lincoln asked.
“I’ve had no communication whatsoever,” Hart said.
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Tonya Curry, deputy commissioner for housing at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, told Lincoln the state works around the clock processing $1 billion in federal COVID-19 funds to relieve Georgians.
“We definitely received a huge demand,” Curry said.
Her department stood up the program to get critical federal aid in the hands of Georgians in weeks. Nearly 300 employees process the aid applications.
Of the $989 million in federal funds given to the state, including money for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 hardships, more than $600 million has been awarded to tens of thousands of Georgia renters and landlords.
“It’s pretty easy for people to say I didn’t get rental assistance or I wasn’t helped, but close to 600 million has gone out the door,” Curry said.
Curry told Lincoln the state’s online portal is the best way to get in touch with the state about processing an application.
But dozens of applicants like Odunkesenler and Hart contacted Lincoln when they said they received no response for months to messages on the state’s online portal.
The state said of the 135,205 applications they’ve received, about 60% were denied.
“We get dozens of calls every day throughout our offices,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid.
Siegel said navigating state and local programs giving out federal COVID-19 assistance is a challenge for Georgians across the state.
People who contact her may not have internet or computer access, or the amount of paperwork some programs require creates a barrier.
“We sometimes see situations where tenants are denied with no explanation,” Siegel said.
Channel 2 Action News asked the state about Odunkesenler’s and Hart’s denied applications and why the state has not responded to questions about their claims.
A spokesperson for the state said via email that Hart’s application is “under fraud review” because of conflicting information on her application.
Odunkesenler’s application was originally denied based on missing documentation. She said her status in the online portal now reads “additional information required” instead of “denied.”
The state recommended the following groups to Georgians who need help applying for rental assistance:
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