A month after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal moratorium on forcing homeowners out of their houses because they can’t pay their mortgages, the wave of foreclosures we feared would hit Florida already is here. Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis has inexplicably failed to distribute hundreds of millions in federal money that would help desperate Floridians keep their homes.
In my home county of Pinellas, we already are averaging more than 60 foreclosures per month. Next door in Hillsborough County, foreclosures have been averaging over 150 per month. Statewide, completed mortgage foreclosures were up 19 percent in August compared to a year ago, and you can bet the increase will be even more dramatic this month. About 113,900 Florida homeowners paused their mortgage payments in June, and most of them still aren’t back on solid economic ground that would enable them to start paying what they owe because of the impact of the ongoing pandemic.
This nightmare could be avoided, but Gov. DeSantis is failing to deliver the assistance for homeowners that I supported in Congress. The American Rescue Plan Act provides for nearly $10 billion to states through the Homeowners Assistance Fund, money that is intended to help homeowners who have been unable to pay their mortgages because of the economic fallout tied to the pandemic. Florida’s share of this money is $676 million, yet our homeowners have not received a dollar. That’s indefensible.
It’s also indefensible that DeSantis has given the responsibility for distributing the mortgage relief money to the Department of Economic Opportunity. That’s the same error-plagued agency that infuriated millions of jobless Floridians because it couldn’t pay out unemployment money in an efficient, timely manner during the pandemic. It’s an awful situation for homeowners: Imagine being reduced to hoping the state’s red tape can be untangled fast enough to beat a foreclosure notice.
Many homeowners who hit pause on their mortgage payments near the beginning of the pandemic were given an 18-month timeline to resume paying back their mortgages. Money from the Housing Assistance Fund may be used for assistance with those mortgage payments, homeowner’s insurance, utility payments and other specified purposes. Yet that $676 million that could help so many hasn’t yet helped a single Floridian.
Even when the federal money does start flowing, it won’t be immediately available to every homeowner who needs help. Because the governor chose the incompetent Department of Economic Opportunity to distribute the money, the federal government is requiring Florida to run a limited experiment first to demonstrate it knows what it’s doing. Cross your fingers.
Gov. DeSantis must do everything he can to make sure this desperately needed relief gets to all eligible homeowners as soon as possible. Floridians who have struggled economically through the pandemic should not be living in fear of losing their homes when the state is sitting on hundreds of millions sent by Congress to help them.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist represents St. Petersburg, Clearwater and most of Pinellas County. He served as governor from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican, and he is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022.