United Way Suncoast launches effort to help Tampa Bay tenants apply for rent aid

Millions in federal rental assistance sit unused at the local and state levels.
A protester holds an anti-eviction sign. [Tribune News Service]
A protester holds an anti-eviction sign. [Tribune News Service]
Published Nov. 22, 2021|Updated Nov. 23, 2021

United Way Suncoast announced Monday that it will spend $3 million to try to reduce evictions in the Tampa Bay area, in part by helping tenants apply for millions in unspent government rental aid.

The local charity is planning to hire a dozen “rental navigators,” as well as train volunteers who can help guide tenants through the application process to increase their chances of success.

“There’s a lot of money, and more money coming,” said Emery Ivery, United Way Suncoast’s chief impact officer for financial stability and support services. “Thousands of families can be helped with those dollars.”

Congress passed two rounds of emergency rental assistance funding totaling about $46.5 billion, which has been gradually distributed to state and local governments since February. Those governments are then responsible for sifting through applications and disbursing money to qualified renters and landlords. But since the program began, it has met fierce criticism for its slow progress.

As of Sept. 30, state, local and tribal governments had cut about $10 billion in checks, or just over 40 percent of the first pot of funding, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Florida’s program got off to an even slower start than the national average, disbursing just 2 percent of its first round of funding by the end of July. The state’s pace increased later in the summer but it still has lagged.

As of the end of September, the state had distributed about $185.1 million, according to information submitted to the Treasury, or 21 percent of its first round of funding. That leaves more than $1.375 billion unspent so far of the total allocated to the state. The Florida Department of Children and Families, which is overseeing the program, did not respond to email requests for further information as of Monday afternoon.

The city of St. Petersburg has distributed about $8.2 million, which leaves $6.2 million of the city’s total allocations unspent, according to government officials and Treasury data. Pinellas County has disbursed $14.8 million, with $31 million left over. The city of Tampa and Hillsborough County created a joint program, which together has doled out about $45.2 million, leaving $45.9 million available.

Ivery said tenants have struggled to submit enough documentation to prove they were financially impacted by the pandemic, which is one of the eligibility requirements. Sometimes glitches have unfairly denied qualified renters, he said.

When the applications are approved, it can take six weeks or more for checks to be processed, he added, leaving landlords frustrated and tenants exposed to being evicted, especially in a hot market where new prospective renters outnumber the housing supply.

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

Even as Florida’s economy has largely bounced back from the pandemic, Ivery said, there’s plenty of evidence that people still need help. Since the federal eviction moratorium officially ended in October, there has been a 30 percent increase in calls to 211 — a local hotline connecting those in need with community services — seeking eviction and rental assistance, he said.

“These are families that were struggling to make ends meet even before the pandemic. Now you have increases in gas prices, increases in rental costs, obviously food and other items,” Ivery said. “They are working, but one unexpected financial issue can throw them into a crisis.”

Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit at Bay Area Legal Services, a partner of United Way Suncoast, said rental assistance can allow tenants and landlords to work out solutions without an eviction ever being filed and harming the renter’s record.

One large hurdle with the rental assistance programs is that the applications are completely online, he said, making it difficult for people without access to technology to submit documents.

“There are implicit barriers in that,” DiFiore said, especially for people who are lower-income or already experiencing a high amount of stress. “It’s just hard for individuals to get that done sometimes without some help.”

United Way Suncoast, which serves people in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, will draw the $3 million for this effort from a $20 million grant the charity received from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.