Programs help people stay housed, avoid eviction

New apartment building
New apartment building

While the federal moratorium on rental evictions expired this week, rent and utility assistance programs geared to area families facing pandemic-related hardships continue to provide funds to help people stay in their homes.

Households that meet eligibility criteria—including household income levels—can qualify for up to $20,000 in aid that helps pay for rent, utilities and home internet service, said Claudia Tuck, the county’s director of community support services.

Much of the assistance goes to unpaid rent and overdue utility bills, but residents also can qualify for aid in paying for upcoming rent and utility payments.

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“Whatever we can do to assist them, we’re there,” Tuck said in a phone interview with Mainstreet Daily News.

Even as the economy is recovering, the need for rental assistance remains. An analysis of census data found that 16 percent of renters nationwide are behind in their rent payments, according to the nonpartisan research institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The federal government has sent two rounds of Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funding to the state of Florida and to Alachua County. Because the money comes from the same source, residents can either apply for aid through the county or through the state—but cannot apply for money from both at the same time.

Alachua County has been more successful in distributing its $8.1 million share of ERAP 1, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Treasury. As of June 30, Alachua County had distributed $2 million in assistance to county residents, while the state, which got $871.2 million in ERAP 1 funding, had only distributed $1.5 million in aid statewide through the same period.

Alachua County had distributed a total $2.27 million and had helped 540 households as of July 23, Tuck said. The county has approximately 700 pending applications that are undergoing several required rounds of review, and has set aside an additional $4.25 million to spend in direct aid from ERAP 1.

One of the challenges of the rental assistance program has sometimes been getting landlords on board. The program for the most part doesn’t hand funds to tenants, but instead pays landlords and utility companies directly.

To receive ERAP funds, the landlords must fill out the paperwork and agree to certain terms, but some of them refuse. Tuck’s staff works to get the landlords on board, but if they continue to refuse to participate in the program, the county on rare occasions has given the rental assistance directly to the tenant, who then provides the program with a payment receipt.

Tuck said that the landlord agreement requires them not to file for eviction for 30 days after receiving ERAP money on behalf of a renter, which is why some landlords are unwilling to take the payment directly.

Initially, the program did not pay late fees or fines on behalf of renters, which also caused some landlords to refuse the direct payment, Tuck said. But the Treasury Department now allows the ERAP funds to be used for “reasonable” fees and fines, which Tuck said had improved participation.

Claudia Tuck

Under the rules of the federal program, the county can spend 10 percent of its allocation on administrative costs, which Tuck said have included purchasing software and hiring a vendor to help administer the application process. The county also has added a staff member to help the program with outreach efforts, so that eligible residents know how to access the aid.

“[We are doing] anything we can think of to get the word out,” Tuck said. “We want to see our families housed and remain housed.”

Remaining housed and avoiding eviction is the best solution, said Mikel Bradley, the managing attorney for the Gainesville office of Three Rivers Legal Services. Three Rivers helps provide legal services, including eviction consultation and representation, to low-income residents.

Bradley said eviction cases, even ones that have been dismissed, can make it difficult on renters trying to find a new place to live.

“Trying to find new housing with an open eviction or trying to find new housing with a recent eviction—that’s really going to crush a lot of people,” Bradley said in a phone interview. “Any eviction filing is going to hurt someone. When you are trying to find an apartment with an open eviction, you kind of cut your options in half at least.”

Family Promise, which helps area families facing homelessness, is one of the other places that people with children under the age of 18 can turn for rental assistance.

“We provide rental housing assistance if that family can show us they’ve got an immediate or pending eviction that is happening quite soon,” said Jayne Moraski, the executive director of Family Promise.

In July, Family Promise helped 11 families through its rental assistance program and one family through a homelessness prevention grant. More families than that are expected to need help but the non-profit is waiting for an additional federal grant, which they expected by Aug. 1, but now are looking for it to come in closer to Sept. 1.

“That one month gap is going to be tricky at best to navigate,” Moraski said.

Family Promise also runs a temporary, 90-day shelter program for families, designed to get them back on their feet and transition them into permanent housing. During the pandemic, that temporary shelter has been at 100 to 150 percent of capacity.

The temporary shelter program currently is serving 19 people in six family units and has a waiting list of 20 to 30 people.

The shelter is “our last resort,” Moraski said.

“I think a lot of people don’t know there’s someone living in their car, who is also going to work and trying to get their kids to school and daycare,” Moraski said. “But people all over this community are doing that every day.”

Jayne Moraski

Family Promise would prefer to intervene earlier to keep people in their own homes.

“If we can keep kids stable, keep them where they are at, keep everyone where they are at, and not have the stress of moving, that would be ideal,” Moraski said.

Moraski said the homeless prevention program is the most cost-effective for the community and a better option for the family. They work with landlords, other nonprofits and social service agencies to help their clients stabilize and avoid homelessness.

She said some families don’t even realize they may qualify for options like the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Moraski described an example of a family living paycheck to paycheck whose daycare shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. The parents might have lost two weeks or a month’s salary as they scrambled to provide care for children who were suddenly at home unexpectedly. The additional costs also would have included unexpected increases in food and utility expenses.

“All of those small impacts have a big cumulative impact for families that are living paycheck to paycheck,” Moraski said. She said she worries that these families might be the ones that slip through the cracks in the system.

“They can’t say ‘Well, I had COVID’ so in their mind they don’t see a connection to a COVID impact, but indeed they were impacted,” Moraski said.

Family Promise works with those types of families to identify and document the pandemic’s impact.

“It is difficult to show that on paper to a government program, but we have tried to help people navigate those waters as best we can,” Moraski said.

Alachua County’s Tuck said she encourages people who are behind in their rent or utility bills because of COVID-related impacts to submit an application with Alachua’s ERAP program.

The county can help residents determine if they are eligible for the aid and can even help them submit their application on computers set up in the lobby of the Community Support Services office.

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