Florida quickens pace of rent aid disbursement but still lags behind nation

The agency overseeing the program said it’s also recently changed some of the documentation requirements.
A final notice of eviction, delivered by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, remains on the door of an apartment in Tarpon Springs in January.
A final notice of eviction, delivered by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, remains on the door of an apartment in Tarpon Springs in January. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2021

Florida officials say they have distributed more than $108 million in emergency rental assistance funds as of August 27, a significant increase from the $18.3 million disbursed at the end of July.

The new figures, sent in an email Friday evening from the Florida Department of Children and Families, represent around 12 percent of the first round of funding the state received from the federal government. That’s much higher than the approximately 2 percent the state had doled out to landlords as of last month.

Related: Florida has disbursed 2 percent of rent aid as eviction moratorium ending

But it still lags behind the national pace that’s been the subject of fierce criticism by housing advocates and the White House, which previously said there’s “no excuse” for local and state governments not to be getting the money out faster. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was struck down by the Supreme Court, adding a greater sense of urgency.

“At least they’re moving some money, but it’s not anywhere near where we should be,” said state Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. “We have a whole bunch of families in a state of emergency and the money needs to be getting to those vulnerable Floridians that need help.”

Diamond, who is running for the Pinellas Congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Crist, sent a letter earlier this month to the Department of Children and Families asking for a meeting to discuss the slow pace of rent relief disbursement. He said it still hasn’t happened.

Related: Florida veteran faces eviction as he waits for rent relief. It may be too late.

Congress passed two rounds of emergency rental assistance funding totaling about $46.5 billion, the first of which which was distributed to state and local governments in February. Those governments have been charged with sifting through applications and sending checks to landlords to relieve the debts of qualified renters, easing a backlog of evictions that mounted because of the moratorium.

Nationwide, about $5.1 billion in rental aid had been distributed by state and local governments by the end of July, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, or about 20 percent of the first round of funding.

Some local governments in Tampa Bay are ahead of the curve. By the end of last month, the city of St. Petersburg had disbursed 40 percent of its initial funding batch. Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa, which combined their money to distribute jointly, had disbursed 26 percent.

Texas, which has been held up by housing advocates as a leader for its rent assistance program, had distributed more than $735 million as of Monday, according to an online dashboard — or about 56 percent.

None of these percentages take into account the second round of funding, which is on a more gradual distribution schedule — making these percentages likely overestimations. Florida received more than $870 million in the first round of funding and is slated to get more than $689 million in the second, according to the Treasury.

In order to get the money out faster, the Department of Children and Families “in recent months” altered some of the requirements of its rent relief program, called OUR Florida, according to an email from agency spokesperson Beatriz Lopez de Martinez. At least some of the changes were in response to changing guidance from the Treasury Department, she said.

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For instance, applicants can now submit “attestation” forms saying they experienced financial hardship as a replacement for certain documents, and people with expired leases will no longer have to provide extra documentation. Relief funds can now also be used to cover late fees on utility and rent bills, and can cover debts at both current and previous addresses.

“These changes lessen the administrative burdens on renters and landlords while maintaining the integrity of the program and mitigating the risk of fraud and scams,” Lopez de Martinez said.

The state has been spreading the word about OUR Florida by working with utility companies, landlords groups and food banks, she added, plus placing radio ads on 105 stations.

Around Tampa Bay, local clerks of courts’ offices said it’s too early to tell whether eviction filings or writs of possession, the final phase of eviction cases, have increased since the moratorium was struck down.

The Hillsborough clerk’s office, however, discovered an error in the way it had been counting writs of possession, meaning that the actual number of people being kicked out in recent months has been higher than previously thought.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose deputies are in charge of serving the writs to tenants’ homes, said he’s long thought the strength of the Centers for Disease Control’s moratorium was overblown. In the early months of the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended the state laws that allowed for evictions, likely discouraging landlords from filing them. But the Centers for Disease Control’s order worked differently, affecting the way cases were supposed to proceed once they were already in court.

In Tampa Bay, that’s meant that tenants had to submit a declaration form saying they qualified for the moratorium’s protections, and if the judge agreed, they would hold off on the writ of possession requiring them to leave their home.

That’s led to inconsistency between judges, Gualtieri said, who have been “all over the board.” Many have still been ordering evictions to go through, he said, and his deputies are legally obligated to comply.

The moratorium also included a loophole that allowed tenants whose leases expired to still be removed, as long as the eviction wasn’t explicitly for nonpayment.

“It’s very sad, very unfortunate because it’s given people a sense of security, literally,” Gualtieri said. Deputies have served the final order in more than 200 evictions this month, he added, which is similar to pre-pandemic levels, if not a slight uptick.

“I’ll put it this way: We haven’t altered our staffing at all.”