A month ago, Roland Baker said he submitted an application for a $25,000 county grant to help his Miami coffee shop survive a plunge in sales during the COVID-19 economic slowdown.
Like most people who applied to Miami-Dade County’s federally funded Hospitality Industry Grant program, Baker hasn’t received a check. This week, the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that of the $30 million in CARES Act dollars set aside to help restaurants countywide, only $407,312 has been paid out.
“I emailed them Monday, and they said it was still being reviewed,” Baker said Thursday. Sales are down about a third at his Vice City Bean on Northeast 17th Street in Miami’s Arts and Entertainment district, a neighborhood once known as the Omni. “Anything they can do to support us helps us survive.”
Baker’s wait for a county stipend captures a running theme as local, state and federal agencies scramble to quickly distribute large sums of federal aid designed to land in the pockets of workers and business owners.
Complications in paying out CARES money
While Miami-Dade’s county commissioners and Gimenez were quick to agree on the categories set to receive the county’s $474 million CARES allocation from Tallahassee and Washington, actually paying out the dollars has gotten more complicated.
“It just takes time to get the programs ramped up and to clear all of the hurdles,“ said Ed Marquez, the deputy mayor who oversees CARES Act distribution for Miami-Dade. “It’s not just the applications. It’s the documentation after the fact.”
A recent presentation by Marquez showed Miami-Dade has paid out about 7% of the $153 million assigned to county relief programs for businesses and individuals. The $10.9 million listed as paid out in relief programs includes $1.5 million in emergency small-business loans from a $25 million fund. About $28 million worth of applications were received and are being reviewed, according to the presentation.
The program that’s paid out the quickest was Miami-Dade’s emergency rental assistance program, which launched in July. Commissioners assigned $10 million in CARES money to the program, administered by the county’s Public Housing and Community Development Department.
So far, about half of the money has been paid out to cover some rent for people with low or moderate incomes who were hurt financially by COVID-19. The application window opened July 14 and closed 10 days later. Marquez said about $5 million has been paid out to landlords to cover missed rent payments.
More rent relief outside city limits
Miami-Dade is expanding rental help. At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved another $5 million fund reserved for tenants living outside of city limits.
That program is designed to duplicate the rent-relief programs that cities can create for their residents and landlords using the $100 million in CARES the county reserved for municipalities.
The county this week also announced a $10 million fund that lets landlords apply directly to cover up to three months of missed rent from tenants who have a COVID-related hardship. Covered rent payments must be forgiven once the property owner accepts the CARES money.
Housing advocates say missed rent payments have become so widespread during soaring unemployment from the COVID-19 pandemic that the county’s relief programs for tenants won’t meet demand. That’s brought criticism for delays in paying out funds from the program launched in July.
“I would have expected the money to have dried up months ago,” said Adrian Madriz, a housing organizer with the Miami Workers Center.
Michael Liu, the county’s housing director, said the department was flooded with rent-relief applications but that about half of the people did not qualify or provide the needed documentation.
He said about $4.5 million remains unclaimed, and that the county will be launching a second round of rental relief applications in the coming weeks. “We’re going to do a bit more case management to qualify more people,” he said.
Liu said the county received 10,000 applications, and approved 4,000. He expects even more interest in the fall because
Washington no longer is providing an extra $600 weekly boost to unemployment checks, money that he said was covering rent for a significant number of households. “There will be more people in need,” he said.
Federal rules require CARES dollars be distributed by Dec. 31 or local governments must return unspent money. Marquez said that won’t be happening. “We’re going to be spending all the money,” he said.
With most of the allocated money unspent, Miami-Dade doesn’t have a full measure of what programs will have dollars left over that could be redirected to other needs.
In July, Miami-Dade commissioners authorized letting the United Way distribute about $20 million in CARES money to pay some living expenses for needy families countywide. The Marquez presentation showed about $2.9 million has been distributed — about 15 cents for every dollar allocated.
Advocates for workers and low-income residents said they were stunned when Miami-Dade this week approved $5 million in CARES money for a tourism campaign.
Commissioners unanimously approved the allocation Tuesday. The item sponsored by Commissioner Dennis Moss was a last-minute piece of legislation that wasn’t on the published agenda.
Miami-Dade spending $5M from CARES Act on tourism ads
It turns over $5 million in CARES money to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. It will fund a planned “Miami Land” campaign using the county’s parks and natural attractions to attract tourists during the COVID pandemic.
Hotel taxes fund the county tourism bureau, which is set to receive an additional $25 million in county hotel and restaurant taxes under the 2021 budget commissioners approved Thursday. The 2021 budget year begins Oct. 1.
“That’s enraging,” Alana Greer, director of the Community Justice Project and an advocate of the rent-relief program, said of the $5 million for the tourism campaign. “We certainly need to be investing in our local economy right now. But we have small businesses and individual residents who are desperately in need of aid. We need to get it out to them.”
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said she endorsed using some CARES money for helping the economy.
“If it’s something that’s going to provide assistance to the businesses that have suffered so much, and help the people who need jobs, I’m happy with it,” she said.
Miami-Dade set up two programs with stipends for workers. The $5 million relief fund for restaurant workers has paid out about $400,000, according to the county report, and no payout amount was listed for the $3 million program for laid-off hotel workers.
That program requires workers to sign up for a one-day online seminar on job-seeking skills, and the county report said 569 people had registered since the option became available in August. Once finished, workers receive a $1,000 stipend, which would mount to a $569,000 total payout.
With about 2,500 training slots available, the low sign-up rate is a frustrating measure, said Wendi Walsh, an administrator of the Unite Here union, which represents hotel workers. “That’s crazy,” she said. “We have more than 1,000 people laid off at the Fontainebleau alone.”
For Baker, Miami-Dade’s COVID economy has been a crisis for his coffee business. The store is only taking about 66 cents for every dollar he sold a year ago, and Baker said Vice City Bean was able to stay afloat only thanks to shrinking payroll to one employee for much of the year.
Now the business is on a better footing. Vice City called back its staff, and is looking to replace those who had moved in the meantime. “We’re actually in the process of hiring,” he said.
Baker said the Miami-Dade grant would help cushion the blow from lost revenue, and cover the kind of irregular expenses that keep coming — like a recent $1,000 repair bill for a door.
David Foulquier said he closed his Fooq’s restaurant near downtown Miami after nearby racial justice demonstrations depressed business even more after weeks of the COVD decline. “Sales took a nosedive,” he said.
Folquier said he applied for the county program hours after it launched and has gotten word he qualified for $25,000 but has yet to receive a check. He said he’s not happy with the wait but is confident the money will arrive.
“I’ve got to give it to Miami-Dade for even offering this,” he said. “At least they’re trying.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carlos Frías contributed to this report.