Late payments, confusion plague Atlanta’s HIV housing program

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Jerusalem House — the city’s largest housing provider for low-income people with HIV — was late paying January rent for over 400 of its clients because the City of Atlanta was months behind on reimbursing the non-profit.

It’s the latest chapter in the city’s years-long struggle to clean up its dysfunctional Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) program. An inefficient process sometimes requiring 3,000 pages of documentation for each monthly reimbursement request is partly to blame, according to Jerusalem House Executive Director Charlie Frew.

“We have to be on a regular schedule of funding,” he told Project Q Atlanta in December. “We can’t be six months in arrears. Two months in arrears is the way a reimbursement process like this is supposed to work. And we’re just so far off track.”

As of Jan. 1, the city owed Jerusalem House $156,000 in HOPWA funding from June, $25,000 from July and $413,000 from August, according to Frew. The non-profit sent the city a $500,000 reimbursement request for September earlier this month. It’s working on sending requests of $478,000 for October and $479,000 for November next.

The backlog in payments jeopardized Jerusalem House’s largest master lease program, covering 436 people — including 113 children — in over 300 apartments across the city. It’s the first time the non-profit has missed paying rent in that master lease program’s 12-year history.

Jerusalem House received a payment from the city on Jan. 7 that allowed it to pay January rent for the program the following day. It received another payment on Jan. 19 that left “very little” outstanding, according to Frew.

The late payments to Jerusalem House come as complaints mount among HOPWA advocates about late payments to agencies, miscommunication and turnover in the city department in charge of the process.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

‘Empty promises’

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development awards an annual HOPWA grant to the City of Atlanta, which is then responsible for disbursing the funds to HOPWA agencies to subsidize the rent of the agencies’ clients.

Frustration about the city’s management of its HOPWA program spilled over during a Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care & Policy Advisory Committee meeting in November.

The city’s late payments to HOPWA agencies could lead to evictions, according to committee member John Warchol, senior staff attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid. He said the city keeps making “empty promises.”

“It isn’t coming,” he said. “And now we’re seeing the result with clients calling us because their rent isn’t being paid.”

“My frustration is totally with the City of Atlanta,” added committee member Jeff Graham. “We keep being told from their perspective that there are no problems and everything is running smoothly. That is clearly not the case.”

Graham is executive director of Georgia Equality and a member of Bottoms’ LGBTQ Advisory Board.

A federal moratorium on evictions was extended to Jan. 31 following the passage of a new stimulus bill that former President Trump signed into law in December. Last week, President Biden extended the moratorium through March. The moratorium protects renters who live in properties with federally-backed mortgages.

Former Atlanta HOPWA Advisory Committee member Daniel Driffin (Photo by Matt Hennie)

Turnover adds to confusion

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms inherited the long-running problems of the HOPWA program upon taking office in 2018, but the dysfunction has persisted as she enters the final year of her first term. The city’s dispute with one HOPWA agency led to an eviction crisis, an explosive lawsuit that was later settled and the non-profit filing bankruptcy in 2019.

HUD launched a formal investigation into the city’s HOPWA program in 2019. Additional documentation has been required for agencies’ reimbursement requests since then, but it’s unclear if that is due to HUD orders.

“I don’t know how much of it is required by HUD versus how much the City of Atlanta has developed on their own,” Frew said.

A City of Atlanta spokesperson did not respond to Project Q’s questions about the city’s overdue payments to Jerusalem House, changes in the reimbursement process and how much is still owed to all HOPWA agencies.

Constant turnover at the city level has added to the confusion, according to Stefanie Sparks, managing attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid’s Health Law Unit. Sparks is also a member of the city’s HOPWA Advisory Committee.

“Every time we think we’re turning a corner there’s turnover at the city and we’re back at square one,” she told Project Q. “I’ve personally suggested changes in terms of how the reimbursement process is run, only to be told that it needs to go ‘up the chain’ and then nothing happens/someone quits/we start the entire process over again.”

“The reimbursement process is inefficient and it’s going to put people on the street if it’s not changed,” she added.

City communication around HOPWA will ramp up and then “completely drop off,” according to Daniel Driffin, a former member of the city’s HOPWA Advisory Committee.

“I understand the impact COVID-19 has had on programs at the city, however when we think about the communities that HOPWA provides solutions for, no communication or a lack of communication is irresponsible,” he said.

Deborah Lonon was appointed Commissioner of the City of Atlanta’s Department of Grants & Community Development in November. (Photo courtesy Athens-Clarke County Unified Government)

City hires new federal grants manager

The city created the Department of Grants & Community Development to manage its federal grants in February 2020. Nigel Roberts was appointed to lead the new department, but he resigned three months later. Bottoms appointed Deborah Lonon to the position in November.

Lonon is the former assistant county manager for Athens-Clarke County and former director of Athens-Clarke County’s Housing & Community Development Department.

“Deborah’s community development experience, knowledge of regulations and passion for our city will help drive our administration’s transformation of grants management and community development in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a press release. “We look forward to working with her to further advance our goals toward building more affordable, equitable and resilient communities.”

In a November letter, Bottoms urged the City Council to confirm Lonon’s appointment and said she “will work closely with our communities and delivery partners” to carry out grant funding.

“These initiatives will support affordable housing, constituents living with HIV/AIDS, homelessness, public infrastructure, blight remediation, workforce development, and other critical services,” Bottoms said.

The council approved Lonon’s appointment on Jan. 4.

Lonon said she looked forward to serving the City of Atlanta.

“Over the coming months we will focus on improving outcomes delivered through grants, as well as our timeliness and compliance,” she said in the press release.

A city spokesperson would not make Lonon available for an interview.

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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