The pandemic has kept millions of Americans from affording the basics. That’s why the $46.5 billion that Congress provided in rental assistance was considered such an important lifeline. But Florida has disbursed only a small fraction of that aid to those in need, reflecting a larger jam in the pipeline nationwide as new infections surge. The state needs to move quickly to distribute this assistance before a rush of evictions only makes matters worse.
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 more than $1.56 billion as more money is distributed. But as the Tampa Bay Times’ Emily L. Mahoney reported last week, the state’s paid out about 2 percent of what it has received so far. Florida is not the only laggard; nationally, only about 6.5 percent of the $46.5 billion set aside for the program had been distributed by the end of June, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. But Florida is at one-third the pace of the national average. That’s a major red flag that must be corrected.
Landlords and tenants’ advocates hailed the assistance over the past year as a means for softening the economic crisis, keeping families housed and stable as a shut-down economy obliterated jobs for millions. Congress passed two rounds of rental assistance totaling about $46.5 billion, handing it to state and local governments to distribute the money. Florida established a statewide rental assistance program, called OUR Florida, and as of July 13 had distributed just $3.9 million, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees the program. Last week, the department announced it had distributed about $18.3 million to 4,300 applicants, falling short of its goal of disbursing $28 million by Aug. 1.
Florida cannot erase all its mistakes, such as rolling out its program months after some other state and local governments readied themselves for applications. But it can make up lost time by improving the application process. An agency spokeswoman said the state had made 80,000 calls in an effort to complete the approval process for more than 30,000 applicants. But more resources are clearly needed. Assembling the documentation to qualify can be intimidating and labor-intensive, even for computer-savvy applicants with online access. Florida should have learned from its disastrous management of unemployment aid earlier in the pandemic that every hardship case is different, often requiring individual attention. Supervisors need to have high expectations. Allowing this money to go untapped because of low priorities or inattention to detail only hurts Florida families and the state’s economy.
The nonprofit data group Surgo Ventures estimates that 6.2 million American households are behind on rent, representing about 15 percent of all U.S. renter households, with an average arrears of $3,700. And for the first time in 15 months, an end to the pandemic-related moratorium on evictions means that millions of Americans face the possibility of losing their homes, just as the delta variant has caused a spike in new infections and hospitalizations, especially here in Florida.
It’s essential that Florida push out this money more quickly in the coming weeks. Doing so will help stabilize housing, public health and the state’s recovery in an uncertain time.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.