Federal aid for renters and their landlords is out there, but distribution is uneven ahead of a March 31 end to the eviction ban – though that could still be extended.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – While thousands of South Florida tenants fall further into debt to their landlords, millions of dollars in federal rental assistance has been sitting in county government bank accounts while officials figure out how to distribute it.

Broward County, which received its $59 million share of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding in late January, is well behind neighboring Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in developing a plan to offer the money to tenants whose incomes were devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But so are most of about 1,000 state, county and local governments across the nation with money to distribute. They are struggling at a non-emergency pace to figure out how to disburse the so-called emergency assistance money.

Looming ahead is the March 31 expiration of the federal government’s current eviction moratorium. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the nationwide moratorium last fall, has not said whether it plans to extend it again.

Under federal guidelines, the new pool of rental assistance money is to be made available to cover up to a year of past-due rent for households that:

  • Are at risk of homelessness
  • Have a household income at or below 80% of the area’s median household income

After past-due rents are paid, qualified households may also be eligible for assistance for three months into the future.

Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry took more than a month to decide to solicit proposals from outside vendors to develop an outreach and application process for past-due tenants not yet served with eviction notices. However, during that month, Henry’s office worked with Chief Judge Jack Tuter to develop a plan to get eviction defendants prequalified for assistance prior to mediation sessions with landlords.

On Thursday, Henry’s office sent letters to four vendors who had expressed interest in managing the part of the program that will target past-due renters who have not yet been evicted, according to a county spokesman. Those vendors will have until Friday to submit proposals, and Henry expects to select one of the companies the following week. It’s not known how much more time it will take the company selected for the job to develop a web portal for assistance applications, or how long tenants and landlords will have to wait to receive money. A statement by one vendor suggested it could be a month later before past-due renters are invited to apply.

Waiting game continues

The $59 million comes from a $25 billion pool for rental assistance approved in late December by Congress and the president. States, counties and large cities that applied to the Treasury Department to distribute the money received their allocations by Jan. 26, as the bill required.

Tenants and advocates for affected renters say they’re frustrated by how long it is taking for the money to get to those who need it.

“The bill was passed in December and here we are in March,” said Bertisha Combs, an organizer for a Fort Lauderdale grassroots organization, New Florida Majority, that helps residents stay in their homes. “They have the money. There’s no reason not to have a plan in place.”

Lynn Brown, an Oakland Park mother of three, said she called the nonprofit 211 helpline after the whole family got sick with COVID-19 in January. She couldn’t pay her rent or utilities and had to give up a job opportunity after catching the virus. She was directed to a foundation that told her to call back after she got a job, she said. She also was connected to the Salvation Army, which gave her $500 to pay her electric bill but no help with the rent.

She took out a loan against her tax refund to pay her rent for January and February but says her family and many others like her are in danger of becoming homeless if the rental assistance money doesn’t start flowing.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “Letting people lose their homes will only make the crime rate go up because people are going to start robbing and killing people to pay their bills.”

Neighboring counties further along

Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have their plans in place, even if they haven’t yet distributed money from the large pool of assistance funding.

Miami-Dade opened its application portal on March 1 and will shut it down at 5 p.m. March 15. Afterward, the county will randomly assign numbers to the applications to determine the order of review. The county chose a lottery-type system because it doesn’t expect that its $60 million allocation will be enough to help everyone who applies. After four days, 5,376 applications had been submitted, a county official said.

On Tuesday, the Palm Beach County Commission is expected to vote on a plan to distribute its $45 million share. A county spokeswoman said an online application portal could go live on the county’s website the next day unless the commission decides to revise elements of the plan proposed by administrators.

The state of Florida has a much larger pool of money, $871 million, to distribute to tenants in counties and cities that were too small under federal rules to qualify to receive their own pools of money. Three weeks ago, the governor’s office said the Department of Children and Families would be in charge of distributing that money. Asked last week when DCF expected to begin accepting applications and distributing money, a DCF spokeswoman did not provide an answer before publication of this story. She said the response was still under review by state officials.

Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said last week that he expected his county would be accepting applications by now.

“Yes, I think it’s taking too long,” he said. “We want this done quickly.” However, Geller said he was confident that whichever company is selected would be able to ramp up operations soon after signing a contract with the county.

Despite the large amount of money involved, Henry has authority under the countywide state of emergency declared at the beginning of the pandemic to bypass normal rules for selecting outside contractors. The county commission won’t have to approve the contract that Henry will sign with the company, a county spokesman said.

Vendors promise fast action

The four companies invited to submit proposals are Ernst & Young, a Los Angeles-based professional services network; CommunityConnect Labs, a Redwood City, Calif.-based nonprofit developer of software and systems for governments and service providers; Indelible Business Solutions, based in Jacksonville; and Tetra Tech Disaster Recovery, an emergency management service provider based in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Henry, he said, decided to solicit outside help after determining that the county did not have enough employees to run the program.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel emailed all four of the proposed vendors and asked how soon they could begin soliciting applications if chosen for the job. Two responded. Perla Ni, CEO of CommunityConnect Labs, who said, “We believe that we could begin soliciting applications within two weeks to one month.”

The other, Indelible Business Solutions, said it’s prepared to “immediately implement our strategy” and if selected would “begin working with the county to determine a timeline for applications intake and assistance deployment.”

Assuming it takes two weeks for Broward County to select one of the vendors, and the vendor needs two weeks to a month after that to open online applications to renters, it could be six weeks to two months before renters and landlords see any money.

Mediation program underway

A possible reason that Henry hadn’t decided earlier to solicit proposals from outside vendors, county spokesman Greg Meyer said, is that she was working with the Broward County Circuit Court system to develop a way to quickly make assistance available to tenants and landlords with pending eviction cases who agree to participate in mediation sessions.

“The county decided to initially prioritize the needs of families already involved in the eviction process to minimize the risk of imminent homelessness,” Meyer said.

Staff members with the county’s Family Success division, which administered federal assistance for rental, mortgage and utilities last year, developed applications and documentation requests that are sent to tenants two weeks before their scheduled sessions so they can be prequalified for the aid.

Two cases have been through the mediation process and 100 invitations, with assistance applications, were sent out last week, Chief Judge Tuter said.

‘Struggling because it’s new’

Miami-Dade County’s speed in soliciting applications from the public has outpaced most of the states, counties and large cities across the nation that are still figuring out how to distribute their funds, said David M. Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for housing affordability.

“They’re struggling with it because it’s new,” Dworkin said in an interview last week. “No one has done a program this size before. They have to figure out how to get it out quickly. It’s a huge issue, similar to the challenge of the vaccine sign-ups.”

Complicating the process was a set of guidelines issued by the Treasury Department on the Trump administration’s last day that advocates viewed as too cumbersome and requiring too much documentation from tenants. That guidance was replaced Feb. 22 by new guidance requiring less documentation. But states, counties and cities have leeway to make it harder to qualify.

Of the 1,055 U.S. states, counties, cities, territories and tribal governments that received assistance from the federal government in January, 52 are accepting applications and three have already closed, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is monitoring the distribution. Fifteen states are among the 52 accepting applications.

Dworkin expects more programs to begin accepting applications throughout the month, with many hopefully distributing assistance to tenants in time to make their April rent payments. Along with more extended unemployment benefits, $1,400 cash payments and another $20 billion in rental assistance included in the latest $1.9 trillion aid package winding through Congress, Dworkin says most of the hardest-hit workers should soon be able to breathe above water.

But he acknowledges, “It’s incredibly frustrating to be waiting for this [rental assistance] knowing it’s here.”

Current eviction moratoriums

Eviction moratoriums are currently in place until:

  • March 31 – For any residential tenant of a single-family house, condominium or apartment who downloads from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and submits to their landlord a declaration attesting that they are unable to pay their rent because of a COVID-19-related income loss.
  • June 30 – For any tenant of a single-family home with mortgages owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture or U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

© 2021 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Author: kerrys