Florida’s rental aid program falls short | Editorial
How many are struggling with evictions because of an indifferent bureaucracy?
Catherine Owens was evicted from her Temple Terrace apartment in December, after the rental assistance she was promised by the state never arrived.
Catherine Owens was evicted from her Temple Terrace apartment in December, after the rental assistance she was promised by the state never arrived. [ Lauren Peace ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 19, 2022

The federally-funded housing assistance had a worthy goal — to keep American renters hit hard by the pandemic from being evicted onto the streets. But as Catherine Owens of Temple Terrace showed, needy Floridians were sometimes cast aside by an indifferent government bureaucracy. The state needs to ensure that others who shared this experience aren’t facing homelessness themselves.

Owens found an eviction notice taped to her door three days before Christmas. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Lauren Peace chronicled in a report this weekend, Owens and her 58-year-old mother had only five days to vacate, the latest setback in her ordeal with Florida’s emergency relief program.

Owens, 30, had applied for rental assistance three months earlier through the program, called Our Florida. Struggling to make ends meet, Owens was approved for assistance in September, and told she’d receive seven checks totaling more than $8,000, to cover back rent for 2021 and monthly payments through early this year.

But the back payments for September and August never came, and while Owens provided her property manager with documentation that money was on the way, the apartment company proceeded with eviction. Owens tried to contact Our Florida; her phone records show she called the support line more than nine times in December, and reached out an estimated 30 times over a three-month period. She’d wait on hold before the line would disconnect. This is the state’s system for helping people in dire straits?

An Our Florida representative told the Times the program receives more than 11,000 calls to its support line each day. That should say something about the difficulty that these needy Floridians have in navigating the bureaucracy. While Florida has speeded the delivery of federally-funded rent and utility relief, renters like Owens have also criticized the operation on social media, inquiring about missing payments and unreturned calls.

The whole point of the program is to provide stable housing and financial security to those especially upended by the pandemic. But a broken system has only increased anxiety for Owens and others, failing to serve participants and taxpayers alike. After Owens and her mother were evicted, the women spent a night sleeping on the floor of an uncle’s “crumbling” North Carolina home before deciding to return to Florida. A Tampa church minister later put the pair up in an Airbnb.

Families deserve better than being forced to scramble for housing when Florida’s safety net fails. On Jan. 6, after the Times contacted the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program, with questions regarding Owens’ case, she received an email from the agency with an excuse about its phone system. Owens heard back after the Times posted this story on its website last week; staff said they were continuing to work to get her back in her home.

It shouldn’t take a case highlighted in the media for state agents to do their jobs, returning phone calls and following through on behalf of clients they’re supposed to serve. If the department has problems with phones, case managers or any combination of technology and staff, it needs to fix them immediately before more like Owens face an unsettled future. Taxpayers are already paying dearly to spare families this problem, and they expect government employees not to add to the hassle.

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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.