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Hillsborough gives newly homeless in pandemic somewhere to go

The pandemic has eliminated stable paychecks for millions across the nation, and county officials are racing to help families before time runs out on the federal stay on evictions.
Carol Motel at 1308 US .HWY 41, Ruskin is now owned by Catholic Charities and is being renovated.
Carol Motel at 1308 US .HWY 41, Ruskin is now owned by Catholic Charities and is being renovated. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jan. 12

Affordable housing in Hillsborough County and across the nation was in crisis long before the coronavirus put the economy on hold.

Stagnant wages hadn’t kept the cost of living from skyrocketing in the region, and many were spending more than half their income on rent when the pandemic put their paychecks on pause.

The federal moratorium on evictions may have bought struggling renters more time, but it didn’t stop their monthly rent checks from mounting, casting millions across the nation down a rabbit hole of debt.

Now, Cheryl Howell, Hillsborough County’s affordable housing director, said staff is racing to stabilize those facing homelessness, many for the first time, before the federal moratorium on evictions runs out Feb. 1.

Little by little, the need is being met. On Monday, Howell told the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board that the first “rapid rehousing” project under her 10-point pandemic response plan is complete: a new home for up to 20 Hillsborough families who are out of money and time.

In little over three months, Hillsborough County staff has worked with the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s Catholic Charities to transform a derelict, roadside motel in Ruskin into the Mercy Oaks Apartments – affordable income apartments set aside for displaced families who lost their homes during the pandemic and are living at or below 80 percent of area median income.

The project, approved by county commissioners on Nov. 16, ate up $1.25 million of the county’s $257 million Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars to complete, Howell said. Another $2.44 million was spent from the county’s Affordable Housing Fund to get the facility finished as soon as possible. Howell’s staff said they expect the apartments to begin welcoming new residents this month.

The rapid rehousing program not only gives those facing evictions a new place to call home, but also provides case management and rental assistance for up to a year, Howell said. Now, the county is looking at its most vulnerable populations, including singles 50 and older and people with convictions or credit issues, for similar low and moderate-income housing projects.

Other items on the list include an Eviction Forgiveness Program and a Landlord Eviction Alternative program with the county’s court system, Howell said.

But even with the eviction ban, records from the Hillsborough Clerk of Courts office show more than 800 writs of possession have been issued by landlords within the county since August using various loopholes.

The county began 2020 with about 1,450 people recorded as being homeless during Hillsborough’s point-in-time count, and officials expect it has grown as the pandemic has caused economic upheaval.

Both Pinellas and Hillsborough have resorted to making motel rooms available so homeless people who tested positive for COVID-19 could be quarantined. The city of Tampa set up a homeless camp with 100 tents.

“The fallout from the pandemic has been enormously widespread,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner and Affordable Housing Advisory Board Chair Kimberly Overman. “Just as we saw with the fallout when the mortgage market collapsed, this is yet another economic event having massive impact on our citizens at no fault of their own - they were working and now they’re not. They were doing well with their business and now they’re not.”

Tampa City Councilman Orlando Gudes said he heard similar concerns in the past year that landlords were “trying to get rid of” residents who used Section 8 housing vouchers in hopes of attracting more tenants who could pay market rate. That’s a trend both the city and county have battled for years, but now that more people are at risk of being displaced from their homes, it’s a trend that must be addressed immediately, he said, perhaps by drafting a tenants bill of rights.

An eviction will stay on someone’s record for seven years, said Cody Powell, vice chair of the Affordable Housing Board.

“Once a person receives that eviction it’s harder for them to get a place than a person who has a conviction in many cases,” Powell said. If you combine both of those together, sometimes it’s almost impossible to identify safe, affordable housing options for families.”

That’s why Howell said this time, the county will work directly with tenants to ensure that the federal relief funding is spent appropriately. When the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding first rolled out, Howell said the majority of landlords in Hillsborough County “would not produce the necessary documents needed for us to make payments to them directly, leaving over 70 percent of the applicants without the ability to be housing stable,” she said.

Howell said the latest projections show that Hillsborough County should receive about $32 million under the latest round approved by Congress Dec. 27, and $12 million should go to the City of Tampa. These funds are earmarked specifically for rental assistance, Howell said, and helping to attack tenants’ mounting debt.

“The reality is that, even with all the programs and plans we have in place, there are going to be some families that are going to get displaced,” Howell said. “But we want them to know that even with our shelters bursting at the seams, there will still be a place for them to go home to.”

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