South Florida counties receiving $189 million more for rental assistance

·4 min read

More federal assistance money has been approved for renters and landlords in South Florida even as counties struggle to distribute the $165 million they received in January.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties will receive another $189 million to help prevent eviction of tenants affected by the pandemic. But documentation requirements have been loosened for this latest round of funding, prompting advocates for low-income renters to hope money can be distributed more quickly.

The first round of funding was part of $25 billion approved by Congress and former President Trump in December. The latest round comes from another $21 billion approved in February as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan in March.

Eligibility requirements for the new funding will remain unchanged: Applicants’ household income cannot exceed 80% of the median household income for their areas. Applicants must demonstrate that they lost income or were hit by increased expenses because of the pandemic. And they must show a risk of becoming homeless if they do not receive help. Money can be applied to past-due rent dating back to March 2020.

A recently released Treasury Department document shows that Broward County has been approved for another $67.5 million on top of the $59 million it received in January. The county has distributed just $773,283 to 60 applicants approved through a mediation program for eviction defendants. As of Tuesday, no money had gone out to any of the 5,738 who applied through a website portal that went live on April 23. By Thursday, county officials said they had approved sending $237,900 to 22 online applicants — an average of $10,814 for each.

Palm Beach County will get $49 million on top of the $45 million received in January. About $8.3 million has been spent by the county so far helping 1,470 applicants. That figure includes 960 utility assistance checks totaling $276,935.

Miami-Dade County is getting $72 million to supplement the $60.8 million it received in January. That county has spent about $9 million on aid to 2,216 applicants. About 17,000 tenants and landlords applied for assistance during the first 15 days of March and most are still under review, officials said.

The state of Florida received $871 million in January and will get another $689 million. The state just opened its application portal in early May. Officials overseeing the program have not responded to repeated requests for numbers of applicants and how much money has been distributed to them so far.

Unlike for the first round in January, state and local governments won’t receive all of the approved money at once. Rather, they will receive 40% of their second-round allocations and get the rest after spending 75% of that first 40%.

Broward County requested the additional funds before determining whether they would be needed because “we would never leave money on the table to support vulnerable residents in Broward County, particularly for children and families that might be at risk of experiencing homelessness,” said Natalie Beasley, assistant director of the county’s Family Success Administration Division, which is overseeing the distribution with help from contracted vendor Tetra Tech Disaster Recovery.

Eligibility guidelines for the first round of funding required local governments to reach out to landlords before offering money directly to renters, and allowed governments to deny funding to renters if landlords refused to participate. But high denial rates resulted from landlords refusing or not responding to requests to provide documentation.

Guidelines for the latest round state that funds must be offered directly to renters when landlords refuse to participate. They also provide flexibility to provide money to tenants without reaching out to landlords.

The new guidelines also provide more flexibility for the types of documentation required to determine eligibility. In many cases, applicants will be allowed to submit signed statements that they suffered financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic if they cannot produce documents like bank statements or tax returns.

How long it will take for the new rules to be adopted by local governments and vendors hired to help review applications is unclear.

Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, hopes that revised guidance allowing direct payments to renters will expedite payments and reduce the percentage of applicants who are denied assistance.

Denial rates stemming from Broward County’s required participation by landlords “is a significant concern,” Aurand said, while the county’s failure to distribute any money to online applicants after more than a month “is really troubling,” he said.

Broward County officials on Tuesday said that strict documentation requirements and careful reviews of applications are necessary to prevent fraud.

But Aurand called high denial rates blamed on applicants’ failure to provide all required documentation, “a signal that documentation requirements are too cumbersome.”

On Thursday, Beasley said Broward officials were assessing the county’s documentation requirements “to provide a balance for flexibility while ensuring that we minimize the risk for fraud.”

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