ORLANDO, Fla. – As concern grows over whether Florida’s low-income renters are receiving the Emergency Rental Assistance funds they need, changes are happening at the state and local level to expedite some payments.
Over the last six months, landlords and tenants have told News 6 too many rules requiring too many documents have slowed or even prevented funds from being disbursed.
Some tenants claimed they do not have pay stubs to prove their income, or lack thereof, while others do not have proof they have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, some faced eviction, unable to pay months of back rent.
“There are still far too many renters that have need and owe rent and still haven’t received the assistance that’s really due to them,” Dianne Yentel said.
Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C., which has been tracking Emergency Rental Assistance spending throughout the country.
She said the Our Florida portal, which has spent only 39% of Florida’s federal Emergency Rental Assistance funding, needs to remove obstacles to get money out faster to families who need it.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, right?” she asked. “People who are behind on rent -- they are concerned every day that they might lose their homes due to some kind of bureaucratic delay, and they know that this money is available, and it hasn’t reached them yet. That’s incredibly unfair.”
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Yentel said simplifying the application process is one way government agencies can get results for all renters.
She said other ways include: Not requiring so many documents to prove tenants have been hit hard financially by the pandemic, broadening outreach to landlords to let them know help is available, and providing direct assistance to tenants when their landlords refuse to participate.
News 6 found out the State of Florida is working on changes.
News 6 obtained a copy of a Program Improvement Plan submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department by Florida’s Department of Children and Families in November. It was required to submit the plan after it failed to disburse at least 65% of its funding by Oct. 30.
According to the plan, administrators were looking to streamline the application process and payments, but there was no mention of what would happen if a landlord refused to participate.
Still, with these changes, and others, DCF wrote they were hopeful to expend all $871 million in the first round of Emergency Rental Assistance funding by the end of January.
“There is still demand in Orange County,” said Dianne Arnold, Citizen Resource and Outreach Division manager for Orange County.
As part of her job, Arnold leads the county’s distribution of its $33.4 million in Emergency Rental Assistance funds.
In fact, when Orange County also did not spend at least 65% of their funding by Oct. 30, Arnold signed off on the county’s improvement plan sent to the feds.
She said Orange County is in the process of streamlining its own application process to make it easier for tenants. Arnold said the county is also taking a bold approach when it comes to renters facing possible eviction.
She said workers are reviewing eviction cases filed at the Orange County Courthouse each day, and they are reaching out to the tenant and the landlord to offer services.
“We reach out to both of them to make sure they’re aware of the program and to see if they will work with us,” she said. “If somebody already had an eviction filed, and the landlord says they will work with us, then we expedite those applications, because we’re trying to make sure we can prevent as many evictions as possible.”
According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, deputies executed 334 evictions in November, slightly down from October.
According to Orange County’s improvement plan, Arnold said the county was exploring how to provide funding to tenants when the landlord refused to participate in the program, but she told News 6 rolling out the program is not as easy as it appears.
“When the money is being issued to the tenants, a lot of times that money is not getting to the landlord or deposited. Then, they’re going to another program asking for assistance,” she said. “So, we are trying to look at the best way to make sure we could provide it, but at the same time, be able to verify that the money’s going where it’s supposed to go.”
She said the county is also in the process of issuing Letters of Intent to some landlords to inform them that rent is guaranteed for at least three months for some prospective tenants.
Currently, Arnold estimated Orange County had disbursed 50% of the first round of Emergency Rental Assistance funding, but she was quick to point out that Orange County had been issuing checks of its own before the federal program kicked in.
She said the county expended approximately $12 million as part of its Eviction Diversion Program during the height of the pandemic.