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Hillsborough expands COVID rent, utility aid

Phase two expects to aid 7,000 families with rent payments of up to five months.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is expanding its rental and utility assistance help for county residents affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The effort is part of the county’s previously announced $15 million rapid-response funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The county initially expected to be able to provide about $3,000 in aid to 5,000 clients when the program began in late April. Despite an initial public response of 64,000 calls that overwhelmed county help lines, the program ended up aiding 1,629 families with two months rent and utility payments sent directly to landlords and utility companies.

It left $12.1 million still available for disbursement and the county now anticipates being able to help an additional 7,000 families with up to five months worth of rent payments.

The online application process opens at noon Monday, Aug. 3. The help is available on a first-come, first-serve basis to income-qualifying Hillsborough residents, including individuals and families in Tampa, Plant City, and Temple Terrace.

Qualifying households must have income at or below 120 percent of the area’s median income qualifications as reported on their 2019 tax return. Households applying for shelter assistance must have a current lease or mortgage obligation, and households applying for utility assistance must have a past due electric bill in the applicant’s name.

Audrey Ziegler, Hillsborough’s director of social services, told county commissioners earlier this month the program was conceived initially as a stop-gap measure.

“Our intent with the program was to provide immediate relief to households and family members who had been impacted by a loss of wage or were newly unemployed due to COVID-19,‘' she said. “You’ll remember at that time we really ...didn’t have a handle on how long COVID-19 would last. We had no idea we would still be talking about that at this level at this point in time.

“So the program was ...intended to be a very short-term intervention, kind of like a Band-Aid or a crisis intervention program with all of us keeping in mind that we would provide that program and then people would get back to work and obviously back on track with their living obligations, but as we know, that didn’t happen.”

During the first phase, the county accepted 4,891 pre-screened applications, but only 2,024 followed through to become qualified. Some applications were duplicates, others were ineligible because they didn’t meet the residency requirement, had savings they could tap or their lost wages weren’t tied to COVID-19 - which is a requirement of the federal aid. More than 2,200 others declined to provide additional documentation to the county.

Still, nearly a quarter of the families who did qualify didn’t get all the help they were entitled to because their landlords declined to participate, Ziegler said. In those cases, only the utility payments were covered.

Without the federal assistance, the county typically spends about $8 million annually helping the needy with rent, mortgage and utility payments.

For more information on the phase two program, see HCFLGov.net/R3HomeHelp.

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