Roach infestations, moldy ceilings, faulty appliances and other deteriorating conditions at properties housing low-income families across Gainesville and Hall County have kept Anthony Davenport busy the last nine months.
“That’s the biggest problems I’m seeing,” he said.
An attorney with the local branch of the Georgia Legal Services Program, Davenport attends weekly eviction hearings in local magistrate court where disputes between tenants and landlords play out.
GLSP has long provided pro bono legal aid for low-income tenants in government subsidized housing, but under Davenport’s leadership, now also represents income-qualifying tenants renting from private landlords.
They are the kinds of individuals and families that are “living one bad experience away,” from choosing between a rent payment, a medical bill or even food on the table, Davenport said.
“We saw an opportunity to help a very, very vulnerable group,” he added. “It broadened our perspective.”
Many evictions occur when tenants stop paying rent because they believe they are owed some recourse for the poor conditions of their homes.
This scenario emerged last year when Gainesville code enforcement targeted several substandard, low-income single-family homes for mandated improvements.
“You’re talking about people in a high-rent market here,” Davenport said. “And they sometimes take something substandard, and landlords may not be diligent in getting issues resolved.”
But these tenants cannot simply stop paying rent.
However, tenants have a right to a court hearing if given an eviction notice, the opportunity to file counterclaims or the potential to negotiate with landlords. They could have rent payments canceled out or awarded financial damages.
But with outreach, education and advocacy, the prevention project doesn’t so much seek monetary gain for clients as much as it tries to find compromises between tenants and landlords.
For example, Davenport said, sometimes a landlord will agree to clear back-owed rent in exchange for the tenant vacating the property (or agree to improvements for prompt rent payment), and the dispute can conclude without a judge’s ruling.
“We’re not necessarily here to sue,” Davenport said.
Davenport said the program is grant-funded through at least the fall of 2019 and that he expects the work will likely continue beyond that time given the need and demand he is seeing locally as an affordable housing shortage grips the rental market.
GLSP has a particular interest in reaching the local Latino community, he added, and immigrants with permanent residency status are eligible for the nonprofit’s services.
“I know that the conditions issues … are happening a great deal in our Latino community that we have here,” Davenport said.
But he also said he knows that gaining trust with this demographic can be a challenge, particularly since some families have mixed immigration statuses (citizen children, undocumented parents, for instance).
GLSP has a Spanish-speaking paralegal and also uses translation services to connect with Latino clients, and Davenport encourages these tenants to reach out if they have concerns about their housing conditions or affordability.
“I know that community is being taken advantage of,” Davenport said.
Georgia Legal Services Program - Eviction Prevention Project
Now serving Hall County low-income tenants with private landlords
Central intake line for complaints, questions or concerns: 800-498-9469
Eviction Prevention Workshop
What: Newtown Florist Club educational workshop on eviction and tenants’ rights in partnership with Georgia Legal Services’ Eviction Prevention Project
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, July 26
Where: Fair Street Neighborhood Center, 715 Fair St. in Gainesville