OUR Florida emergency rental assistance program receives additional funding

People are losing their homes while waiting on government assistance
Posted at 10:06 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 10:06:08-05

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — The Florida Department Of Children And Families announced an additional $740 million dollars into the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but ABC Action News has been following the funding for months and finds that people are still getting evicted while waiting on money from the program’s previous funding.

It’s been almost a year of this Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), but the process took months to get the money moving due to a lengthy approval process. Most checks started going out in the summer months.

Now, some governments like Hillsborough County are out of money, while DCF’s OUR Florida is still behind on sending money. On top of that, landlords aren’t willing to wait any longer.

“We're seeing evictions are on the rise… The landlord's currently in Pinellas County are some of them are instituting policies starting on February 1 or March 1 and stating that they will no longer take government rental assistance checks. So I've had at least three clients with the check in hand… and the landlord saying no thank you,” said Attorney Mercy Roberg with the Community Law Program legal aide nonprofit in Pinellas County.

She explains that many of her clients are back to work, but they can’t catch up on rent, especially with mandatory quarantines.

“So what we've seen with OUR Florida is kind of the same things we saw in the past where there's checks that say they're issued but they don't arrive to the landlord. I've seen instances where there were three checks issued to arrive but one is still missing,” Roberg added.

The‘ OUR Florida program received $870 million dollars in February 2021.

In August, ABC Action News found DCF had only disbursed 3%. In September 24%, November 42%, and December 63%.

However, In mid-November, due to a major lag in their disbursement reporting to the US Department of Treasury, DCF had to submit an improvement plan.

Along with changes, they stated they expected all funds to be allocated by the end of January.

On February 3rd, DCF said in a press release that they had distributed $858 million to 164,000 households, that’s almost 98%.

They also announced that they received an additional $740.4 million for the program from the federal government.

But Roberg said dozens of her clients in Pinellas county alone are still waiting on checks.

“So our frustrations lie with the lack of transparency and communication,” Roberg explained. “The the OUR Florida program, if they could do something as simple as provide a check number, when I'm able to tell the landlord or opposing counsel or be in front of the judge and say check number 7578 was mailed out from Tallahassee on this date and time. That's a solid thing that I can state and I have never been able to receive that from Florida.”

She adds that people are losing their homes, especially with the rental market in Tampa Bay up 24%, landlords can get even higher rents from new tenants.

We’ve also been tracking the paperwork granting an eviction also known as a writ of possession.

In a snapshot of just the last year, nearly 4,000 households in Pinellas County received a writ of possession and more than 5,600 in Hillsborough County, despite the CDC’s eviction moratorium.

“As of today we still have people calling you know, asking about the program they still need assistance. So that need hasn't gone away,” said Luisa Rodriguez-Zmoda with Hillsborough County Social Services who manages the county’s ERA funding.

They ran out of ERA funding a few weeks ago. In total, they distributed $54 million dollars to 13,000 applicants.

While Pinellas County still has about $18 million dollars available, Hillsborough is sending residents to OUR Florida, hoping that they will get more funding as well.

“Our understanding is that we're kind of on a standby mode right now because we do expect to receive additional funds for this program from the federal government. We just don't have the details yet,” Rodriguez-Zmoda said.

Both Hillsborough County and the Community Law Program say the best thing residents can do while waiting on rental assistance is keep open communication with their landlord.

In addition, file your taxes now. Hillsborough said if they get more funding, they will need your 2021 tax return, even if you didn’t have a job.

If you are facing an eviction and need help, groups Community Law Program in Pinellas, or Bay Area Law Group in Tampa, can negotiate with your landlord.

“If we encounter a client, who the landlord's not going to take the funding and the eviction may go through or we may be able to negotiate a move out date, right. So instead of the sheriff coming and knocking out the door, let's agree on you know, a move out date at the end of the month. And that that is that we see some success,” Roberg explained, adding that they are also partnering with other nonprofits to help rehouse clients who are evicted.

With DCF receiving more funding, Roberg points out it's also been difficult for residents to recertify for additional funds.

“Recertification is an issue because clients are working. But with the rise and COVID clients have to quarantine, their family members have to quarantine so we see people losing a lot of wages when they're forced under quarantine for health reasons, which is fantastic to keep them safe, but puts them right back on the cycle of median rent money again,” she explained.

We reached out to DCF for a comment, we were referred to the press release on more funding that also stated the program hired more staff and “now has a team of more than 700 processing applications, managing cases, answering calls and supporting the program.”

It also included a quote from DCF Secretrary Shevaun Harris:

“DCF is on a mission to support families in their greatest time of need, and the OUR Florida program is another example of our efforts to assist Florida families on their road to economic self-sufficiency. OUR Florida has provided relief to more than 164,000 households, keeping families safe in their homes throughout 2021 and into 2022,” said DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris. “The extension of the emergency rental assistance program and the corresponding additional relief funds will accelerate Florida’s recovery and help those in need.”

To apply for OUR Florida, click here.

To apply for Pinellas County funds, click here.