ORLANDO, Fla. – Several Central Florida counties and the state of Florida are at risk of losing their remaining emergency rental assistance funds, which could amount to millions of dollars not going to help local families who need it.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, states, counties and cities that received funding for the first round of its Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA1) must have spent at least 65% of their funding by Sept. 30 or risk having the remaining funds reallocated to regions with more demand.
According to numbers provided by the Treasury, Florida’s Department of Children and Families had dispersed only 24% of its $871 million in emergency rental assistance by that date.
Brevard and Orange counties had disbursed 30% of their funding and Lake County had expended 43%.
Other counties, like Marion, Seminole and Osceola had spent or obligated more than three-quarters of their federal rental assistance funding.
“We have served over 2,000 families in Marion County to date through the funds we have received,” said Scot Quintel, president of the United Way of Marion County.
He said at the height of the pandemic, his organization was receiving nearly 200 calls per day asking for help to pay rent and utilities.
“They will share how (these funds) impacted where they were concerned about being evicted, or they were concerned about the power was going to be shut off or had been shut off,” he said. We were able to do a payment guarantee and get it turned back on. You do see times where this really is that lifeline that a household may need.”
The United Way of Marion County administers the Emergency Rental Assistance program for Marion County commissioners.
“Going through the United Way of Marion County also allowed us to quickly get this assistance to people that we know needed it because they deal with individuals every day,” said County Commissioner Michelle Stone. “The partnership really worked well to get the message out.”
To date, Marion County has spent all of its $11 million in rental assistance funds, and the county is now exploring a second round of funding.
Seminole County is experiencing a similar success.
“I’m not going to lie -- it has been a struggle to get it out, but we have been successful, thankfully,” said community assistance division manager Carrie Longsworth.
She said part of Seminole County’s outreach included a storefront, where people who were technologically challenged could come for help applying for assistance online.
“We have had a great staff, we have tried to streamline it, but it is a pivot for a lot of the counties,” she said. “Direct services may not have been what they were doing previously, or to the extent it was maybe a much smaller operation. Now, we have received millions upon millions of dollars with different rules than our normal programs.”
Orange, Brevard and Lake counties are trying to preserve the rental assistance funding that has been promised by submitting Performance Improvement Plans to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
According to their plans, Orange and Brevard expressed difficulty with having enough workers to handle the demand of the rental assistance program.
Orange County claimed even temporary employment agencies did not have enough candidates to assist them with the task.
All of them said they were committed to increasing the outreach to communities that have been hard hit economically by the pandemic, making the application process easier and talking to landlords who might be hesitant to get involved.
Orange County wrote they were ready to change the rules and allow tenants who have fallen behind on their rent to get funding directly, without their landlord’s involvement.
Lake County recently signed an agreement like Marion County, where the United Way will now help manage its rental assistance program.
The Department of Children and Families would not confirm it has submitted a Performance Improvement Plan to Washington, D.C.