The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated housing instability for many renters. Households have been struggling to pay their rent, and many have faced evictions since the start of the pandemic.
With the economic impact of COVID-19 still looming, more people than ever are searching for housing assistance.
After issuing more than $8 million in federal funds through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Alachua County is issuing another $9 million to residents who are having difficulty paying their rent or utility bills due to the pandemic.
$25 billion was appropriated to the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program by the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2021. Another $21.55 billion was appropriated in the second round by the American Rescue Plan Act.
To qualify for assistance, the income of the household must fall below 80% of the area median income. Priority will be given to households that fall below 50% of AMI, or those who are unemployed or have been unemployed for 90 days.
Adults must have qualified for unemployment benefits on or after March 13, 2020, or have experienced a reduction in household income on or after March 13, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, one or more adults on the lease have to demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
The Alachua County website states that past rent due, utility notice, court-issue eviction notice, and other documents can be used to prove a risk of homelessness or instability. The website also lists the total household income that the tenants must have or be below to qualify for assistance.
The process can take a long time to complete because of the various forms of documentation required to determine eligibility. In the first round of funding, both tenants and landlords had to apply for the program to receive aid, and the aid was given directly to the landlord or the utility company.
The landlords have their own eligibility criteria including submitting various forms. Claudia Tuck, the Director of Community Support Services for Alachua County, told the Florida Political Review that if the landlord has multiple tenants, they only need to fill out one application that will cover all the units.
Although, in this second round of funding, if a landlord refuses to participate, the program must give the aid directly to the tenant. The tenant can then use the money they are given to pay the landlord. This can prevent the issue of landlords previously not accepting the funds from the program.
Another difference is that assistance can be provided for up to 18 months. ERAP administrators have also adopted self-attestation for some eligibility criteria. Self-attestation is when a tenant submits a written statement that can substitute for the documentation typically used to verify information such as household income or loss of income.
Aside from rental assistance, the funds can be used for other housing-related expenses. Kody Glazer, the Legal Director for the Florida Housing Coalition, told the Florida Political Review that the ERAP funds can help with relocation costs such as the first month’s rent and security deposits. They can also cover hotel or motel stays.
Although, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Only half of the ERA programs explicitly offer coverage for other housing expenses, of which only 40% cover relocation expenses.”
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the program needs to be more flexible and implement additional procedures to overcome potential challenges.
In an interview with Sheila Payne, she explained it is difficult for people to prove they lost their jobs due to the pandemic. She explained that various people she worked with lost their jobs and needed help but were not eligible for aid because they could not prove it was pandemic-related.
Payne said that the self-attestation has been an issue and explained that one person she was working with has been trying to get assistance since September. He has sent 50 emails and uploaded numerous documents still to no avail.
The main challenge is that local governments are concerned about paying back funds, Glazer explained. He said, “Nothing protects local governments from relying on self-attestation.” Since there is no protection from liability if the self-attestation is false, people are hesitant to do it.
To combat these issues, a project called Ending Rental Arrears to Stop Evictions was created by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. This project is intended to ensure that federal aid reaches the people who need it and is effective.
ERASE aims to make the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and programs like it visible, accessible and preventive. One of their grantees is the Florida Housing Coalition where Glazer is leading the project.
To further improve the program, Glazer said that ERASE advocates for protection from liability for tenants regarding self-attestation. Glazer also mentioned that the best thing is to have staff working directly with tenants who apply for ERAP.
Currently, there is a case manager to help with applications in person at the Alachua County Health Department building where the division of social services is located. There is also a helpline to assist people.
According to Glazer, “Alachua County is one of the only counties who distributed 100% of the funds from the first round. They have been very good at getting the money out the door.”
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