Duplicate applications hinder Orange County’s rental-aid program

Since restarting a rental-assistance program last month, Orange County has approved about $1 million to help families struggling to pay for housing, but efforts to hand out the remaining $13 million has been slowed by a pile of ineligible applications.

Most applications deemed ineligible are duplicates of pending ones, officials said.

“I don’t know if they think by putting in more applications that helps their chances,” said Dianne Arnold, who oversees the federally funded program. “We ask people not to do it. We tell them, ‘Please just submit the one application and, you know, wait for us.’ ”

More than 3,100 applications — nearly 40% of all applications submitted —have been kicked out, Arnold said.

Some also are tossed because the applicant does not reside in Orange County as rules require and other households have been disqualified from the new round of funding because the household previously received rental assistance totaling $20,000, the maximum award.

Program officials have approved about 200 applications and asked for more information from another 180 applicants.

The county received about $15.9 million — $14 million for direct aid and the remainder for program administration.

Nearly 3,900 are awaiting review, Arnold said this week.

The program launched Oct. 8 as evictions soared in Orange County to 14,000 filings as of this week, the most in over a decade.

Orange County commissioners cited high demand for housing assistance when they voted 4-3 in August to put a proposed one-year cap on rent increases on the Nov. 8 ballot. The measure passed easily, winning 60% of the ballots, but lawyers for the Florida Realtors and the Florida Apartment Association won a court challenge forbidding election officials from certifying the vote.

Orange County commissioners last week authorized an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

To qualify for assistance, a tenant must be at least a month behind on rent.

There are income restrictions, too.

A one-person household cannot have an annual income greater than $46,480. Annual income limits are $53,120 for a two-person household; $59,760 for a three-person household; $66,320 for a four-person household; and $71,680 for a five-person household.

Priority is given to applications submitted by households facing eviction and households with minor children.

The Orange County Emergency Rental Assistance Program, known by the abbreviation ERAP, is intended to help vulnerable tenants stay in their homes and avoid homelessness by providing financial aid to pay past-due rent owed because of financial hardship.

The original program, launched during the pandemic, distributed more than $30 million to qualifying Orange County residents.

The county shut its application portal for the original program in July. The average award was about $5,500, Arnold said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Orange County residents have received more than $200 million in rental assistance from programs administered separately by the Department of Children & Families, Orange County and the City of Orlando, including $174 million handed out by the state — the most among Florida’s 67 counties.

Many eligible county households applied for help through the state program because it initially offered more money.

Applicants are not eligible for funds from both state and county programs covering the same time span.

The state program, which ended in May, assisted about 29,400 Orange County households, according to state officials.

For more information on eligibility, required documents or to apply for the program, visit ocfl.net/RentalAssistance.