The state of Florida has received more than $870 million from the federal government to make landlords whole and keep renters in their homes during the pandemic, and expects to receive a grand total of more than $1.56 billion as more money is distributed.
It’s given out around 2 percent of what it’s gotten so far.
For the first time in about 15 months, starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, there will be no barrier to Florida evictions moving forward, barring last-minute action by Congress. Hundreds of thousands of Florida renters are estimated to be at risk of losing their homes, just as the delta variant is causing renewed apprehension among health experts.
Rental assistance funding has been widely held by landlords and tenants’ advocates alike as the antidote to the evictions crisis. To that end, Congress passed two rounds of rental assistance totaling about $46.5 billion, which is being handed out to state and local governments in charge of sifting through applications and distributing the money.
Florida used its money to establish a statewide rental assistance program called OUR Florida. As of July 13, the state had distributed just $3.9 million, according to a news release sent out by the Florida Department of Children and Families, which is overseeing the program. At that time, the department said it expected to bring the total to $27.9 million by the end of this month. However, in a Friday email, the department said it had distributed only $18.3 million to about 4,300 applicants, and encouraged more people to apply at OurFlorida.com.
“At the end of the day, there’s this money that has been set aside ... and the people who need it the most still do not have the money to help,” said Rajni Shankar-Brown, professor of social justice education at Stetson University and the vice president for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s pretty terrifying and highly concerning. I don’t think there’s a quick fix.”
After two weeks of the Tampa Bay Times repeatedly requesting information about the pace of the rental assistance distribution via email and phone, the Department of Children and Families sent out an email Friday evening updating the total. The email, from department spokeswoman Mallory McManus, also said the department “has been working tirelessly to ensure the funding from OUR Florida ... is distributed to renters in need while ensuring the integrity of the program.”
McManus said OUR Florida has received more than 30,000 applications, and most that haven’t been approved “are awaiting action by the tenant to provide additional information or documentation.” She said the program has made 80,000 calls in an effort to collect the required documents and “complete applications that match registered landlords can be processed and verified in as little as 18 days.”
Kody Glazer, legal director of the Florida Housing Coalition, said Florida’s distribution number was “disappointing.” He attributed it to a long list of factors, including one issue with the online application process that requires landlords to create a new account and re-apply for every tenant if they’re applying on behalf of multiple people.
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The application is also online, which can be a barrier for people without computers, and many still have not have heard of the program, Glazer said.
“At this point we need a big ground game, knocking on doors of people getting evicted, getting money out like it’s an emergency management problem,” he said.
The timing of Florida’s rollout was also “near the back half of states” — it started accepting applications in mid-May, after essentially building up staffing and technology to handle them from scratch, Glazer said. The first round of federal rental assistance money as part of this program was passed in the final days of 2020, and some other state and local governments were ready to comb through applications starting in February.
But Florida is not alone in its slow distribution. Nationally, only about 6.5 percent of the approximately $46.5 billion set aside for the program, or 12 percent of its initial stage of funding, had been distributed by the end of June, according to a recent report by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Yet Texas, a state lauded by some advocates as an exemplar, has handed out more than $610 million in its emergency rental assistance, according to an online state dashboard, after launching its program in February. That’s about 47 percent of the $1.3 billion the Treasury Department said it got in the first round of distribution.
Ally Harris, who works for a nonprofit group called Texas Housers, said the state agency in charge of administering the fund has been receptive to groups like hers pointing out ways to improve the program.
“We would basically report to them everything we saw in (eviction) court that was working or not working well, and that helped them make changes really quickly,” Harris said. The system hasn’t been perfect, but the state “swallowed their defensiveness and listened and kept an open mind,” she added.
Some of Tampa Bay’s local governments have also handed out more of their rental assistance money than the state.
According to spokespeople for each government entity and Treasury records: Pinellas County has distributed about $5.8 million, or about 27 percent of its first batch of money. The city of St. Petersburg has doled out $3.2 million, or 40 percent. Hillsborough and Tampa, which combined their funding into a joint effort, have distributed $11.6 million, or 26 percent. Pasco County has distributed about $4.5 million, or 27 percent.
None of these figures include previous, smaller rounds of rent relief doled out by the state and local governments as part of the CARES Act. The Florida organization charged with distributing the CARES Act’s rent help returned $99 million in unused aid to the state earlier this year after struggling to disburse it.
Pasco County spokeswoman Tambrey Laine said there has been somewhat of a decrease in demand for the aid, compared to when it launched its first round in February and the county reached the initial application cap in under two hours.
But there’s also been common issues with tenants having difficulty providing documentation showing financial hardship caused by the pandemic, which is a federal requirement. Some examples in the Pasco application portal include proof that a renter was furloughed, or that they lost their child care and had to stay home.
“The further we get away from the (closures), the more difficult it is to tie it back to COVID,” Laine said.
The question is what happens next.
The expiration will be a relief to landlords, some of whom filed lawsuits citing the order’s disruption to their livelihoods and calling it an intrusion into the worlds of local courts and private industry.
The federal eviction moratorium did not cancel rent. Tenants who successfully filed the declaration form invoking its protections were prevented from being forced out, but back rent — and late fees — still accrued.
The moratorium “has never addressed the underlying issue, which is an individual’s inability to pay rent,” said Amanda White, the government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association, a landlord group. “The only viable solution ... is the timely and effective distribution of rental assistance funds to those in need.”
It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many people have been relying on the moratorium’s protections and estimates vary significantly. One on the more conservative end by the nonprofit health research firm Surgo Ventures, which incorporates weekly Census surveys, estimates that 6.2 million American households are behind on their rent.
About 369,000 of those households are in Florida, according to Surgo, and more than 50,000 of them total are in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
A higher percentage of Black and Hispanic families in Florida told the Census Bureau, in its most recent survey, that they were not current on their rent.
The effects of the moratorium’s expiration will likely be felt in the coming days and weeks.
Florida initially had a state moratorium issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2020, which he then allowed to expire after the Centers for Disease Control’s order was announced in September.
Many eviction cases in the Pinellas and Hillsborough courts have been allowed to proceed through every stage except the final step, called a writ of possession, which is posted on the door by a sheriff’s deputy. It’s unclear how many cases fit this description, but court data shows thousands fewer writs of possession issued since the first moratorium was in place even compared to a typical, non-pandemic year.
However, officials have cautioned that it’s unclear how many of those cases will result in immediate displacement of a renter because tenants may have moved out on their own or worked out an alternative solution while the freeze was in place.
Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit at Bay Area Legal Services, which provides free help to low-income tenants, said he’s seen some landlords decline to accept rental assistance money.
“In Florida, apartments are very scarce and high-dollar amounts are being paid, so the landlords know they can fill that unit when they get them out right away with someone who, in their minds, is going to be able to pay,” he said.
The next step, DiFiore said, should be getting laser focused on distributing as much rent relief as possible.
“The money is there,” he said, “it’s just a matter of getting it out.”