Athens-Clarke County has suspended an eviction prevention program after discovering that taxpayer money was missing from the bank accounts of the nonprofit running it.
The ACC Housing and Community Development Department—which oversees local housing and social services programs funded through federal grants—suspended the eviction program Monday, after Athenian First Development Corp. was unable to provide documentation for more than $100,000 in expenditures, according to a memo from ACC Manager Blaine Williams to the Mayor and Commission.
At least $37,895 is missing, said Andrew Saunders, interim director of HCD. “It was not in the account we were expecting it to be in,” he told Flagpole.
All told, there are questions about $55,462 in direct expenses (benefits to tenants and landlords) and $66,834 in administrative costs that HCD is working with AFDC to resolve. As a recipient of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, AFDC receives monthly prepayments and is required to submit documentation on spending to HCD, which then reports to the federal government. The documentation issues date back to June, according to Williams’ memo.
Last week, AFDC informed HCD that it could not repay the $37,895, nor could it meet its October payroll or process 22 applications for financial assistance. The nonprofit also would not provide updated August and September documentation or submit a written plan to resolve the issues, according to Williams, although Saunders said cooperation has improved since then.
Williams said the ACC government will file for reimbursement from AFDC’s insurance. He also referred the matter to Police Chief Jerry Saulters for investigation, although Williams described that move as due diligence and said there was no particular reason to suspect a crime.
“The ACCGov team has worked diligently to try to rectify this problem with AFDC since it was identified in June; and yet, at each junction, AFDC has failed to uphold their project scope and contractual commitments,” Williams wrote in the Oct. 24 memo. “As time has progressed, the project has achieved an intolerable level of federal non-compliance that must be addressed. While it is plausible that AFDC can come back into compliance, it may well not be in time to restore the service of the Eviction Prevention Program.”
AFDC representatives have not responded to a voicemail or email asking for comment.
Expecting a wave of evictions after a pandemic-related federal moratorium expired, the ACC Commission voted to create the eviction prevention program in May 2021. It is modeled after Project Reset in Gwinnett County, which pays landlords up to 95% of tenants’ back rent in exchange for wiping the slate clean and allowing the tenants to stay in their homes.
But the county had trouble attracting applicants to run the program. AFDC was the only nonprofit to apply for funding. ACC staff raised concerns at the time about AFDC’s ability to manage the program because it was a new nonprofit that had never dealt with the stringent requirements of a federal grant before. Not wanting to delay further by trying to solicit more interest, the commission approved a $2.5 million contract in October 2021. Before the program was suspended, that contract was up for renewal this December.
Before the financial reporting issues emerged, Williams said the program had been successful. “There were a great number of people helped, I think about 300,” he said, “so it was working as intended.”
The possibility remains that AFDC could come back into compliance, but the commission could also find another nonprofit to run the program or redirect the remaining $1.1 million elsewhere. “I’m hoping we can get someone to jump in and run it in a competent way,” said Commissioner Tim Denson, the driving force behind starting the program.
However, Williams said he is not sure ARPA funding can be spent on evictions anymore. That funding was aimed at helping local governments and individuals affected by the pandemic. But most evictions have been the result of market forces, not COVID-19, Williams said. If the program is no longer eligible for ARPA funding, the commission could continue the program using other funds, he said.
In the meantime, tenants facing eviction are being referred to two other local nonprofits that receive federal housing funds through the ACC government—the Ark and Family Promise—for assistance. Because the eviction prevention program has been suspended, though, no one is sitting in Magistrate Court during eviction proceedings to tell landlords and tenants about the help available, Denson said.
“In all of this, people’s lives and their housing security are at stake. Staff believe the mitigating measures described above… are sufficient to help individuals participating in the eviction prevention program,” Williams wrote in his memo. “I can assure you HCD staff will do everything in their power to ensure people are helped.”
This post has been updated to correct the name of the federal funding package that ACC used to pay for the eviction prevention program.
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