OUR Florida, the state-run program built to distribute federally funded emergency rental assistance, has seen a massive spike in payouts after getting off to a slow start, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
In October, the U.S. Department of the Treasury notified states that any participant in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) that distributed less than 30% of funds would have to submit an action plan or risk losing the remaining money. At the time, data from the Treasury showed Florida had distributed only 24% of funds the state-run program received.
DCF Communications Director Mallory McManus said the state now has distributed nearly 97% of available funds.
“OUR Florida has distributed more than $761 million of the $784 million in emergency rental assistance funds received by the state,” she said. “Since May 2020, over 145,000 households in Florida have received relief after being impacted by the pandemic.”
ERAP is a $25 billion federal program that began last January after passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The funds are meant to help families pay rent and utility bills as the nation still reels from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many in Tampa Bay, the pandemic’s pains have been exacerbated by rent and inflation rising at higher rates than nearly anywhere else in the country.
Tampa resident Amanda Adriani is a mother of two small children. Her husband is disabled and battling cancer. She said OUR Florida has been a blessing that has restored her faith in humanity.
“Paying our monthly bills is a struggle and we often get behind on payments because I miss a lot of work to care for my husband and children,” Adriani said. “Without this program, I would be in a very bad spot, homeless or without utilities.”
William Peña Wells is a lawyer with Gulf Coast Legal. He has been helping Floridians struggling to stay in their homes since the program began. Peña Wells said he has noticed a major improvement in OUR Florida’s performance.
“It’s been a learning curve because it was something developed on the fly to respond to a national emergency,” he said. “But now, for every problem case you hear about, there are 10 or 15 cases where people have been able to stay housed and get on their feet. Especially families with children.”
Peña Wells said far fewer people are now being evicted over lack of payment. OUR Florida beefed up its team to about 700 and looked to how others set up ERAP distribution for some best practices. One policy change to move applications along was expanding how tenants can prove residency. When the program started, tenants had to show a lease as proof. That’s now been expanded to include utility bills, bank statements, driver’s licenses and more.
McManus said the state continues to engage in outreach efforts to tenants, landlords and other stakeholders as well.
“The Department continues to work to raise awareness for relief available to renters in Florida who are behind on rent and utility payments while helping them get back on the road to economic self-sufficiency through the OUR Florida program,” she said.
But while the process has improved, Floridians are still losing their homes.
“The big problem that makes some people actually homeless is that some of the counties and cities that have the assistance funds don’t want to put the money into the registry of the court, which is a requirement of eviction law,” Peña Wells said. “You have to put money in or you get a drop-dead default. No argument about it.”
Under Florida law, if an eviction is filed because of overdue rent, the money owed needs to be deposited with the court before a tenant can fight the eviction. Some critics said OUR Florida payments take too long and by the time they’re received it’s too late.
But the state has tried to remedy that as well, a DCF spokesperson said. If a check hasn’t been cashed within 45 days, OUR Florida sends notifications to tenants and landlords reminding them to deposit the check. After 60 days, calls and more extensive efforts are made to determine if a check needs to be reissued.
And if someone is facing eviction, OUR Florida has an escalation process to expedite applications.
Peña Wells said the next challenge will be making sure the assistance doesn’t go away before the need for it does.
“Basically, we’re doing very well now. A lot of the rough edges have been smoothed out. But there are still some things that need work,” he said. “The only unfortunate bit is that the program funds are dwindling and are coming to an end soon. There is still a huge amount of need. We are going to have a big watershed crisis soon. I’m not sure what the solution will be if these programs aren’t funded.”