In March, she started wondering: How are we going to pay rent?
Her husband’s work as a house painter had shut down because of the coronavirus. Her disability check barely covered utilities and internet access, so the two grandkids she’s raising could finish school at her Clearwater townhome.
“We have a wonderful landlord,” said Debbie Marquez, 51. “But how long would he let us slide?”
In April, she started worrying: A notice appeared on her door. She had three days, it said, to “pay rent or deliver possession.”
Florida’s governor had prohibited evictions until May 17. But then what?
In May, she started panicking: Her husband still hadn’t gotten unemployment benefits.
They had no idea how they would ever pay $950 each month for April, May and June. They spent their stimulus check on insurance, insulin and medical bills. She swallowed her pride and went to a neighborhood food pantry.
There, in a bag of donated groceries, she found hope. Covid Cares Pinellas Fund, said a flyer. One-time assistance for rent payment.
“You have no idea what that meant to us,” Marquez told a counselor on Tuesday. “I’d never had to ask for help with rent, and I had no idea how to do it.”
Sinking into a chair in the High Point Neighborhood Family Center, Marquez pulled out a folder filled with forms. She had come to thank Cuvette Holloway, the family support specialist who helped her get federal rent assistance. “I don’t know what we would have done without you,” she said.
Then she put a pile of papers on the counselor’s desk and asked, “Can you help my daughter?”
Tampa Bay already struggled to provide enough affordable housing, area agencies said. Job losses caused by the pandemic have created an unprecedented, overwhelming problem. Thousands of Floridians are still waiting for unemployment checks and now owe up to four months of back rent. Many don’t know when they will go back to work.
“Evictions already have been filed and are just waiting to be acted on,” said Duggan Cooley of the Pinellas Community Foundation. “You’re going to see lots more throughout the summer.
“I’m incredibly concerned about what comes next.”
On June 17, Cooley’s nonprofit released a report called The Looming Storm: The State of Evictions in West Central Florida. The study, co-sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, the Allegany Franciscan Ministries and the United Way Suncoast, says that 886 households in Tampa Bay are facing eviction.
It predicts that 5,907 more families in the area could lose their homes.
“We’re hearing a lot of tenants saying they don’t have to pay their back rent,” Cooley said. “That’s not the case. The bills haven’t stopped. They’re just piling up.”
Late Tuesday, the governor extended the ban on evictions through Aug. 1. That gives renters another month to catch up — or fall further behind.
“It’s going to get worse,” said Beth Houghton, who oversees Pinellas County’s Juvenile Welfare Board. “In April alone, we had three times the number of requests for rent assistance as the year before.”
Between mid-March and the beginning of June, more than 11,700 people called 2-1-1- to ask for help paying rent in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, according to the Looming Storm report.
Florida received $240 million in federal Covid Cares funds to help with mortgage and rent relief. That money was sent to each county, where leaders decided how to disperse it. In Pinellas, applications go through the 2-1-1 center, which quickly became overwhelmed.
Callers reported waiting more than three hours on hold. Others flooded local social service centers in person. With libraries closed, many lost access to computers, printers and scanners — so they couldn’t download forms or send documents.
“Families who already are struggling shouldn’t have to figure out how to navigate all these agencies, all these requirements and processes,” said April Putzulu of the Juvenile Welfare Board. “We knew we needed to help them. So it’s almost like we called in the National Guard.”
Community groups partnered to train counselors to help people fill out forms and file documents. They set up appointments at Pinellas’ eight neighborhood family centers.
They told people that if they had lost their income due to the coronavirus, they were eligible for up to $4,000 per household — a one-time payment that would go straight to their landlord, that they would never have to pay back.
Recipients must be U.S. citizens, have less than $4,000 in the bank and have earned under $4,300 a month for a family of four. Federal Covid Cares funds can also help pay mortgages, homeowners’ association fees, water and electric bills, even internet access. Each request requires at least eight different documents.
Pinellas already has given more than $1 million to help 1,053 households, said county spokesman David Connor. Another 2,900 people have applied for an estimated $3.3 million.
Hillsborough County has allocated about $15 million in federal funds for utility, rent and mortgage assistance, according to the county website. Counselors also are available at the county’s five community resource centers.
Local governments and grants can provide other assistance.
“Funds are still available,” Connor said. “We encourage people to apply.”
In her mustard-colored office at the High Point Neighborhood Family Center, counselor Holloway flipped through the forms Marquez handed her and frowned.
Marquez’s daughter had applied for federal assistance on May 28, but her case was still “under review.” Desiree, 30, has three children, including a baby born in March. She had been on maternity leave from her job as a home health aide since then. Her husband, an assistant manager at a hotel on Clearwater Beach, had been furloughed since spring break and still hadn’t received an unemployment check. The family hadn’t had any income -- or paid any rent -- since April 1.
“They’ve been scraping by on their stimulus checks,” Marquez told the counselor. “My daughter tried to apply for rent relief on her own, but she keeps having to re-send stuff, fill out more forms. I told her she had to call you.”
Holloway smiled behind her mask and clicked on her computer. “Do you have your daughter’s case reference number? I’ll put in a request for her.”
Since federal funds became available, Holloway and others at the Clearwater family center have helped 30 families pay rent, said Director Margo Adams. “If the funds stop, I dread what will happen to them,” she said. “We can’t let all of these people become homeless.”
Holloway asked Marquez a few more questions about her daughter, then emailed a “navigator” at the 2-1-1 center, requesting a status update. “They have a lot of people asking for help,” she told Marquez. “It might just be taking a while.”
Marquez’s own application had been approved at the end of May. But on that last day of June, her landlord still hadn’t gotten the check. She had shown him an email saying money was coming, so she no longer feared being evicted. “He says we’re good,” she said. “At least for now.”
They talked about her grandkids. She had just signed up the 5-year-old for kindergarten. His older sister will be a senior in high school this year. They talked about her health, her husband, how strange and scary these last few months had been. “Maybe we’ll get another stimulus check,” Marquez said.
She put the papers back in her folder, picked up her purse. She was walking out the door when Holloway said: “Hang on! I just got an email back!
“Your daughter’s case is complete. They’re just waiting for approval. She should hear something by next week.”
Marquez clasped her hands and cried: “Oh, thank you! That’s such a relief.”
In the parking lot, she called her daughter. “It’s going to be okay.”
Contact Lane DeGregory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @LaneDeGregory.
How to get help:
To apply for federal funding to help pay rent or mortgages in Pinellas County:
Text: “COVIDCARES” to 8982111
Or make an appointment to talk to a counselor at one of the eight family centers: www.jwbpinellas.org/neighborhood-family-centers
To get help in Hillsborough County:
Or make an appointment to talk to a counselor at one of the five community resource centers: https://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/en/residents/social-services/financial-assistance/find-a-community-resource-center