Florida has received more than $870 million from the federal government to make landlords packed and preserve renters in their homes during the pandemic, and expects to get a whole of more than $1.56 billion with more money distributed.
About 2 percent of what has been obtained so far has been distributed.
For the first time in about 15 months, starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, there will be no impediment to evictions in Florida moving forward, except for final-minute action by Congress. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Florida renters are at risk of losing their homes, just as the delta variable is causing unused concerns among health experts.
Rent assistance financing has been widely viewed by landlords and tenant advocates alike as an antidote to the eviction crisis. To that end, Congress has passed two rounds of rental assistance totaling approximately $46.5 billion, which is being delivered to state and local governments responsible for transferring applications and distributing funds.
Florida used its money to create a statewide rental assistance program called OUR Florida. As of July 13, the state has distributed just $3.9 million, according to a press release sent out by the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees the program. At the time, management said it expected the whole to reach $27.9 million by the end of this month. However, in an email on Friday, the department said it distributed only $18.3 million to about 4,300 applicants, and encouraged more people to apply to OurFlorida.com.
“At the end of the day, there is this money that has been set aside … and the people who need it most still do not have the money to aid,” said Rajni Shankar Brown, professor of social justice education at Stetson. University and Vice President of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It is very terrifying and very disturbing. I don’t think there is a quick repair.”
two weeks following Tampa Bay Times The Department of Children and Families has repeatedly requested information about the frequency of distribution of rental assistance via email and phone, and sent an email Friday evening to update the whole. The email, from department spokeswoman Mallory McManus, said the department was “working tirelessly to ensure that funding from Florida… is distributed to tenants in need while ensuring the integrity of the program.”
McManus said Florida has received more than 30,000 applications, and most of those requests that have not been approved “are pending procedures by the tenant to provide additional information or documentation.” She said the program made 80,000 calls in an effort to collect the required documents and “packed applications matching registered landlords can be processed and verified in as little as 18 days.”
Cody Glazer, legal director of the Florida Housing Alliance, said the distribution number in Florida was “disappointing.” He attributed this to a lengthy list of factors, including one problem with the online application process that required landlords to create a unused account and reapply for each tenant if they were applying on behalf of multiple people.
The app is also available online, Glazer said, which can be a barrier for people without computers, and many still haven’t heard of the software.
“At this point, we need a big floor match, knock on evacuees’ doors, and get paid like it’s an emergency management issue,” he said.
Glazer said the timing of the Florida launch was also “near the back half of the states” — it started accepting applications in mid-May, following essentially building staff and technology to handle it from scratch. The first round of federal rental assistance funds passed as part of this program in the final days of 2020, and some other state and local governments were ready to comb through applications start in February.
But Florida is not alone in its listless distribution. Nationally, only about 6.5 percent of about $46.5 billion earmarked for the program, or 12 percent of its initial phase of funding, had been distributed by the end of June, according to a recent report by the US Treasury.
However, Texas, lauded by some advocates as a model, has provided more than $610 million in emergency rental assistance, according to the state’s online dashboard, following launching its program in February. That represents about 47 percent of the $1.3 billion the Treasury said it got in the first round of distribution.
Ally Harris, who works for a nonprofit group called Texas Housers, said the state agency responsible for managing the fund has been receiving groups like hers that suggest ways to improve the program.
“We were basically telling them everything we saw in the (eviction) court was working or not working well, and that helped them make changes really quickly,” Harris said. The system was not flawless, she added, but the state “swallowed its defense and listened and kept an begin mind.”
Some Tampa Bay local governments also distributed more rent assistance money than the state.
According to spokespersons for each government entity and Treasury records: Pinellas County distributed about $5.8 million, or about 27 percent of the first batch of funds. City of St. Petersburg spent $3.2 million, or 40 percent. Hillsboro and Tampa, which raised their financing in a joint effort, distributed $11.6 million, or 26 percent. Pasco County distributed about $4.5 million, or 27 percent.
None of these numbers include previous, smaller rounds of rental exemptions offered by state and local governments as part of the CARES Act. The Florida organization tasked with distributing the CARES Rent Aid Act returned $99 million in unused assist to the state earlier this year following it struggled to cash it.
Pasco County spokeswoman Tampree Lane said there was somewhat of a drop in demand for aid, compared to when it began its first round in February and the county reached its initial application cap in less than two hours.
But there have also been common issues with renters having difficulty submitting documents that outline financial hardships caused by the pandemic, a federal requirement. Some examples in the Pasco app portal include evidence that the tenant has been put on leave, or has lost childcare and has been forced to stay at home.
“The further away we are from[the lockdowns]the more firm it is to link it back to COVID,” Lane said.
The interrogate is what will happen next.
The expiration would come as a relief to landlords, some of whom have filed lawsuits over the order’s disruption to their livelihoods, calling it an intrusion into the realms of local courts and private industry.
The federal eviction halt did not cancel the rent. Tenants who successfully file a declaration form based on his protections are prevented from being forced to move out, but late rent — and late fees — are still owed.
Amanda White, director of government affairs for the Florida Condominium Association, a landlord’s group, said the suspension “never addressed the underlying issue, which is an individual’s inability to pay rent.” “The only viable solution… is the efficient and timely distribution of rental assistance funds to those in need.”
It is firm to say how many people were dependent on endowment protection measures, and estimates vary widely. Nonprofit health research firm Surgo Ventures, which includes weekly census surveys, estimates that 6.2 million American households are behind on their rent.
There are about 369,000 of these families in Florida, according to Surgo, and more than 50,000 of them are in Pinellas, Hillsboro, Pasco and Hernando counties.
A higher proportion of Hispanic and black families in Florida told the Census Bureau, in the latest survey, that they do not pay their current rents.
The effects of the endowment expiration are likely to be felt in the coming days and weeks.
Florida had initially suspended the state issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2020, which was then allowed to expire following the CDC’s order was announced in September.
Several eviction cases in Pinellas and Hillsboro Courts have been allowed to proceed at every stage except for the final step, called a possession order, which is posted on the door by the Deputy Sheriff of Police. It’s unclear how many cases fit that description, but court data shows thousands of warrants of possession have been issued since the first stay was in effect even compared to a typical non-epidemic year.
However, officials cautioned that it is unclear how many of these cases will result in immediate tenant displacement because tenants may have moved on their own or worked out a workaround during the freeze period.
Tom Davory, head of the condominium team at Bay Area Legal Services, which provides free aid to low-income renters, said he’s seen some landlords refuse to accept rental assistance money.
“In Florida, apartments are very rare and dollar amounts are paid out, so realtors know they can load that unit when they move it out right away with someone in their mind who will be competent to pay,” he said.
Deviore said the next step should be to focus the laser on distributing as much of the rent relief as conceivable.
“The money is there,” he said, “it’s just a matter of getting it out.”