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  1. Opinion

A rent and eviction crisis is looming next week | Column

Here are some ways to keep renters in their homes, write two local advocates.

On June 2, the moratorium on evictions issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis expires, and a rent crisis that could impact thousands of local families is at hand. Like many states, Florida is on the cusp of a significant housing crisis that has been radically worsened by the pandemic COVID-19. For many, rent for both April, May and June will soon be past due. Local legal aid organizations (Gulfcoast Legal Services and Bay Area Legal Services) are gearing up for a rush of evictions even as the economy is restarting.

How big is this problem? According to the Terner Center for Housing at the University of California Berkeley, Florida has the fourth largest number of renter-households (nearly 1 million) most likely impacted by the economic shuttering. Furthermore, in Florida over 50% of these households were already struggling with rent payments before the pandemic -- second only to Washington, D.C., and 8 points higher than the national average.

Randall H. Russell, president and CEO of Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg [Randall H. Russell]

In the St. Petersburg-Tampa metro area, where a dire shortage of affordable housing was an important topic of concern even before the current crisis, it is estimated that there are more than 144,000 renter-households with at least one worker likely impacted by the COVID-related economic decline. Nearly 70,000 of those households (more than 175,000 people) were already rent burdened — paying more than 30% of their income on rent-- before the pandemic. Based on national estimates, Latinx and black households are disproportionately more likely to be impacted by this renter crisis.

This crisis has made visible the racial inequities that our systems have generated. But it can also be the clarion call for transformation at the federal, state and local levels. There is no single solution to this crisis, but it is clear that in both the short and long-term it should be a national priority.

What can be done? For starters, we can learn from examples of promising local-scale housing efforts emerging across the country. These include Kansas City Tenants, focusing on tenant-landlord policy changes, and efforts in Oakland, Calif., where professionals and institutions responded to and followed the lead of residents. Our own city of St. Petersburg has committed $1 million for rent, mortgage and utility assistance. The crisis is far-reaching, and so, too, should be the range of response.

Tim Dutton [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

The Urban Institute has developed a five-point strategy for how state and local entities can maximize new federal funding and opportunities related to COVID-19 that could help stabilize the situation and protect individuals and families at risk.

  • Take full advantage of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) waivers. In addition to more funding, HUD has begun to put waivers in place for rental assistance programs and grant administration (PDF).
  • Identify opportunities across the program spectrum to provide rental assistance. The Housing Choice Voucher Program and the Emergency Solutions Grants are “go-to” vehicles as existing rental assistance programs, but there are opportunities with both Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) and the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to provide rental assistance.
  • Maximize resources to provide housing for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The Emergency Services Grants is a powerful resource for addressing homelessness.
  • Think holistically about all funding sources with an emphasis on need. State and local entities can layer on different funding sources and their eligible uses. Incentivizing private investments into low-income housing as a policy shift, for example.
  • Be flexible and act quickly. Waiver use still requires notifying HUD. For efficiency, Public Housing Authorities and entities administering state and local grants can consider submitting an “all-inclusive” set of emergency policies and procedures.

Though the long-term answers require a fundamental shift to viewing safe housing as a right, significant short-term financial relief is needed. The Emergency Renter Assistance Act has been passed in Congress to cancel rent, cover landlords’ losses, and finance the purchase of rental properties to be used for affordable housing. Additional ideas are being considered as well. Let us pay close attention so that the best of these can muster local support that could help frame a large-scale response.

Only with speedy federal financial relief with ramped up local advocacy can this emergency be averted and a permanent solution achieved. While those will best be developed by the many people directly impacted, who understand the challenges that need to be overcome, the breadth of systemic changes required will engage all sectors.

Finally, this crisis has raised broader awareness of the disproportionate impact that natural disasters and crises levy on communities of color. A healthy region cannot be achieved without stable affordable housing options; solutions must prioritize race equity and acknowledge and confront the conditions that systems and structures that perpetuate racial discrimination.

Tim Dutton is executive director of UNITE Pinellas, and Randall H. Russell is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

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