WASHINGTON – Sorry, it’s going to take several more weeks for that rental assistance approved by Congress and the president to start trickling down to help cover tenants’ past-due rents.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be, considering how long it has taken the federal government to get stimulus checks into people’s bank accounts or how screwed up the state’s unemployment system remains nearly a year after the pandemic began.
Renters and landlords counting on accessing the $25 billion in rental assistance money can do little at the moment but wait for the gears of bureaucracy to slowly grind along.
The money can’t get here soon enough for Paula Prentiss and her daughter Jasmyn. Both women have suffered severe loss of income during the pandemic. Shifts dried up at the restaurant where Paula worked as a server while money Jasmyn earned making costumes for cosplay gatherings disappeared as gatherings were canceled. Today she earns enough money for food and utilities, but not rent, answering the phone for a local call center.
They’ve been unable to pay rent on their Margate apartment since August. In September, their landlord filed suit in Broward County Court to evict them. A nationwide eviction moratorium ordered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is all that’s preventing a judge from signing a final order returning the property to the landlord. Thousands of other South Florida renters are in the same situation.
“It’s been a very stressful few months,” Paula Prentiss said. “Getting help to pay our past-due rent could definitely help us out.”
Thousands will get help
The money will get here. It’s just a question of when.
Of the $25 billion, Florida is likely to receive $1.4 billion, according to estimates by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That would pay down past-due rent balances of $6,000 each for more than 200,000 Florida households.
Moody’s Analytics, a data firm, estimates that 11.4 million U.S. households that are behind on their rent owe an average of $6,000 each. Most of the debt was accrued after enhanced unemployment payments expired last summer, the firm said.
If distributed based on population, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties should receive a combined $402 million – enough to wipe out $6,000 balances for at least 60,000 households.
That won’t be enough to solve the problem, experts say.
Stout, an analytics firm, estimates between 187,000 and 391,000 renter households in Florida would be at risk of eviction if the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires on Jan. 31.
Moody’s Analytics estimates that U.S. renters might be as much as $70 billion past due. Advocates for renters and property owners have been asking since last spring for $100 billion to get tenants through the pandemic.
But the $25 billion will still go a long way toward preventing millions of tenants from ending up homeless, where they would be at greater risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, said Sara Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Landlords to help with applications
The bill was written with provisions “to ensure the money will be going to those who need it the most and for states to get it out more efficiently,” she said.
Property owners will be allowed to play a more active role in applying for relief on behalf of their tenants and will even be able to bundle applications for multiple tenants as long as tenants provide required documentation of income loss and hardship, Saadian said. Once approved, the money will be paid directly to landlords in most cases.
Louis Mata, a spokesman for United Property Management, which manages more than 9,000 units in South Florida, says the company will begin reaching out to tenants as soon as it gets directions on how to apply.
“We’ll certainly send notices to residents, through emails and posters at the properties, to help get the information to the folks. We’ll tell them it will be first-come, first-serve, and that they have to get lined up and have their documents in order.”
While his company has dozens of eviction cases awaiting the expiration of the CDC moratorium, Mata says it targets only tenants who stopped paying rent and refuse to discuss payment arrangements.
Who will qualify
Qualifying for the new aid should be less cumbersome than it was for money earmarked for housing assistance under the first COVID-19 relief packages approved last spring.
This time, requirements are simpler. While funds are available, tenants can qualify for up to 12 months in past-due rent, plus three months for future rent if one or more household members meet this criteria:
- Demonstrates a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
- Has a household income at or below 80% of the area median. On average, 80% of the median household income in the tri-county region is about $48,113, but that number could differ depending on the county.
- Priority will be given to households at or below 50% of the median household income – about $30,000 – but it’s not yet clear how priority will be determined, Saadian said.
When will the money get here?
Here’s where the government’s effort to distribute the $25 billion stands right now: This past week, the U.S. Treasury Department posted a form that states and local governments with populations of at least 200,000 residents must fill out and submit to be eligible to receive a portion of the money for their residents.
The deadline to return that form is Jan. 12. Then the Treasury Department will decide how much money will be distributed to each based on how many applications it receives. Agencies that will disburse the money, including the housing assistance programs within Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, will then find out what documentation will be required from households.
While large counties will get the money directly, smaller cities and counties will receive it through the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office hasn’t yet determined which state agency “is best suited to administer the program in a manner that most expeditiously delivers the funds to Floridians who need it,” press secretary Cody McCloud said in an email.
On the Treasury Department’s website, Secretary Steve Mnuchin was quoted as saying the Emergency Rental Assistance Program was being implemented with “unparalleled speed.”
The bill gives the government 30 days after it was enacted to make the money available to state and local governments. President Trump signed it on Dec. 28, so housing assistance organizations in South Florida might not receive it until Jan. 28.
That means distribution of the money to those who need it likely won’t begin until February – after the CDC moratorium is expected to expire.
But housing advocates expect the incoming Biden administration to extend it further. Saadian hopes it will drop the incremental extensions that have kept tenants in constant fear of imminent eviction and extend the moratorium through the end of the national emergency, whenever that comes.
With Democrats soon to take control of the presidency and both legislative branches, advocates for tenants and landlords say they hope more relief is coming. Landlords in particular have been left out of the national conversation about housing stability and have been offered no assistance to deal with maintenance costs, property tax bills and utilities, Mata said.
“Let’s talk to landlords,” he said. “Let’s figure out a plan going forward. We have to look at the big picture if we want to keep people in their homes.”
© 2021 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.