TAMPA BAY, Fla. — ABC Action News has shared stories of residents facing evictions while waiting on emergency rental assistance from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) OUR Florida program.
We’ve been asking the agency for updated numbers on fund disbursement for more than a month and got answers on the same day Commissioner Nikki Fried sent the Governor a letter of concern regarding millions in unallocated money.
“What do we do? Where do we go?” Clearwater resident Sarah Pasko told ABC Action News after receiving an eviction notice while waiting on a check from OUR Florida.
The Community Law Program in Pinellas County also said they had about 15 clients who received eviction notices while waiting on funds.
“It’s been over a month and a half and every time I reach out to OUR Florida and the client reaches out to find out, you know, can we get a check number? Can we find out if it was cashed? Can it be re-issued? These are all questions we've asked, we get the runaround, said Attorney Mercy Roberg with the Community Law Program.
In August, ABC Action News found OUR Florida had only disbursed 3% of the federal rent assistance.
We’ve been asking for an update since Nov. 1.
In an email response on Dec. 6, a spokesperson for DCF said:
“As of December 6, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has distributed more than $550 million to over 111,000 households. Funds distribution increased by 65 percent from October 2021 to November 2021.”
That’s about 63% distributed to residents, but that information hasn’t been public until now.
This statement came just hours after Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and 2022 Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Nikki Fried tweeted a letter to Governor Ron Desantis and DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris citing millions in unaccounted for funds.
Her letter reads in part:
“The state of Florida may lose up to $660 million in federal emergency rental assistance funding due to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ failure to timely communicate with the U.S Department of Treasury.”
According to the Department Of Treasury’s data, she was right. DCF only reported dispersing 24% or less than $200 million of their funds as of Sept. 30.
That was the deadline for at least 30% of the funds to be dispersed, or the Treasury Department could reallocate their “excess” funds.
However, DCF tells us that Fried had old data.
The Treasury Department gave grantees until Nov. 15 to submit a letter with an improvement plan for their remaining funds. DCF shared their letter, stating they had actually disbursed 42% as of Nov. 15.
In their improvement plan, they list several actions they are implementing including:
- Allowing flexibility for income verification
- Implementing flexibilities for tenant documentation requirements
- Enhancing the vendor's call center capabilities
- Implementing dedicated team members to provide assistance to landlords with more than 10 properties
- Streamlining the payment process with large utility providers
- Increasing the number of vendor staff to meet program needs
DCF concludes that based on their “future projections, all funding will be allocated by January 2022.”
As for Pasko, she tells us she received a check from OUR Florida on Dec. 6 as well, but it wasn’t enough to cover even one month’s rent.
You can read the full improvement plan action statements below:
1. The State of Florida has identified and implemented process improvements and technology enhancements that have lead to programmatic efficiencies and timely issuance of payments to eligible families through the following: - Allowed flexibility for income verification (implemented using census tract fact-based proxy, third-party vendor for verification or public benefit enrollment) - Updated automated messaging to customers to increase clarity for program requirements As a result, Florida was able to increase the funds disbursed by 79% from September 2021 to October 2021. Based on Florida's future projections, all funding will be allocated by January 2022.
2. The State of Florida continues to seek opportunities to enhance customer service to Florida's applicants through the following: - Streamlining the application processes by implementing flexibilities for tenant documentation requirements - Enhancing the vendor's call center capabilities - Implementing dedicated team members to provide assistance to landlords with more than 10 properties - Deploying vendor personnel to Department of Children and Families storefronts to assist applicants
3. The State of Florida will continue to ensure the vendor meets programmatic and contractual requirements to increase the number of eligible households served and ensure timely distribution of funds through the following: - Conducting 100% quality review process to protect integrity of the program - Streamlining the payment process with large utility providers - Increasing the number of vendor staff to meet program needs