CHARLOTTE COUNTY — Joe Chung has a lot of admiration for the man who rents the other side of his duplex south of Sarasota. William Schleman, 80, served in the Air Force in the 60s in a medical unit. Chung described him as a “hero.”
When the pandemic cut into both of their incomes, they worked together to apply for Florida’s emergency rental assistance program in hopes it would keep Chung in the black and Schleman in his home of nine years. Chung borrowed money from a friend to pay the mortgage on the promise that government relief checks would be arriving soon.
They’ve waited for weeks, but the money never came. On Friday, Chung was preparing to evict Schleman.
“We put our faith in the ability of the state to help in times of need, especially during a pandemic,” Schleman said. “If you’re able to comply with (the requirements), they should come through for you.”
Chung said he’s tried everything he can think of to protect his tenant.
“Now the bank is basically saying if the eviction doesn’t happen, they can foreclose on the house,” he said.
Nationwide, federal officials expressed dismay at the slow pace that state and local governments have disbursed the approximately $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance passed by Congress to make landlords whole and relieve the debts of tenants with pandemic-related financial hardships. On Monday, the White House said there was “no excuse” for states not to distribute the money “promptly,” noting that they started receiving it in February.
Even against this backdrop, Florida’s distribution pace stands out. The state disbursed about 2 percent of the funding it received by the end of July, leaving hundreds of millions untapped in its OUR Florida program. Nationally, distribution of that same funding batch was at about 12 percent by the end of June.
After submitting financial documentation in June, Schleman’s application to OUR Florida was approved last month, according to records Chung shared with the Tampa Bay Times. The program also sent a disbursement schedule, which said the first payment of $3,400 would be deposited on July 20, then another $1,200 on Aug. 1 to cover this month’s rent.
But that money hasn’t come through. Now when Schleman or Chung call, they said no one will confirm that the application is still approved, or when the checks will be deposited.
“Anybody you talk to seems to not have any kind of information as to what’s happening with the paperwork,” Schleman said.
Schleman’s only income is his $1,179 monthly Social Security check, plus about $800 from a roommate who receives disability benefits, he said. Schleman’s son used to send him monthly checks, but that stopped when his hours were cut earlier this summer.
Schleman has made a few partial payments to Chung. But Chung has still struggled to pay the $1,900 monthly mortgage and other bills after his own salary was cut at his human resources job. He bought the duplex in May, and counted on the rental income when he was calculating what he could afford.
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“This is called an emergency rental assistance fund — it’s implying they’re going to act quickly,” Chung said. “It’s already been 45 days.”
The Department of Children and Families, which is overseeing OUR Florida, originally said in mid-July that it had disbursed about $3.9 million at the time, but an additional $24 million was “obligated to more than 7,030 clients approved as eligible for assistance,” which it expected disburse by the end of the month. But on July 30, the department provided an update saying it had disbursed $18.3 million to “more than 4,300,” far short of that original benchmark.
It’s unclear if the troubles Chung and Schleman are experiencing are widespread. The state began accepting applications for OUR Florida in mid-May, months after other local governments. DCF spokeswoman Mallory McManus did not respond to an email requesting comment on Schleman’s case, but previously said most applications that haven’t been approved “are awaiting action by the tenant to provide additional information or documentation.” She also said “complete applications that match registered landlords can be processed and verified in as little as 18 days.”
State Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, sent a letter to the department Thursday, citing a Tampa Bay Times report on the pace of the disbursement and asking for a meeting with Secretary Shevaun Harris. Diamond is running for the Pinellas Congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Crist.
He also mentioned hearing from constituents about “onerous documentation requirements needed to receive relief” as part of the OUR Florida program. Diamond said in an interview that he hasn’t heard of people’s documents getting lost, rather that tenants are having trouble providing enough records to show they were financially affected by the pandemic.
Diamond said he knows running a program of this magnitude “is not an easy task,” but Florida’s pace of distribution is “totally unacceptable.”
“This is not some sort of academic discussion,” Diamond said. “There are real people in our community that are days away from getting kicked out of where they’re living.”
Despite the new order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspending evictions in places like Florida with higher coronavirus transmission, Schleman would not meet the qualifications to be protected. He’s on a month-to-month lease, which means that the eviction filing would be for a termination of his tenancy — in other words, not explicitly related to nonpayment of rent. That loophole has contributed to hundreds of Floridians being evicted throughout the pandemic, even in cases when they tried to invoke the moratorium in court.
Chung said he’s trying to negotiate with his property management company and his bank on the eviction filing, but both institutions are pushing him to go through the courts to create records of his losses and to add more than $2,000 in late fees.
He said if he hadn’t been assured that the OUR Florida money was going to come, he would’ve used the past few weeks to look at other aid programs or tried to find Schleman a new place to live.
“Because of these broken promises and how late they’ve been ... now I’m trying to peddle backwards,” Chung said. “If I keep him in there and I miss my mortgage, we’re all going to get kicked out and my kids aren’t going to have a home.”
This would be Schleman’s first eviction, but it’s not the first time he’s lost a home. He used to own a “spectacular” five-bedroom house in Englewood with a pool, he said, but was forced into a short sale after the Great Recession in 2008. That pushed him into the rental market, which he said was “pretty favorable” at first, when his side of the duplex cost $600 a month nearly a decade ago.
But as the market has improved, his rent has doubled. He’s been searching for a place to go that would cost less than $1,000 per month, but “things are high everywhere,” Schleman said.
“I just try to keep a level head and have faith things will work out.”
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