Waits For Rental Aid Stretch For Months In Florida – Sun Sentinel

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Sun Sentinel.

Busy signals. Long waits on hold. Conflicting messages about required documentation and eligibility. And what seems like endless limbo before finding out whether money is on the way.

Sound familiar? Millions of laid-off workers in Florida experienced those nightmares when trying to access unemployment benefits after COVID-19 shut down the national economy in spring 2020.

Today, Florida tenants seeking a slice of nearly $2 billion in so-called emergency rental assistance funding allocated by the federal government this year report encountering the same mind-numbing frustrations and delays.

Some of the largest programs set up by the state, counties and cities to provide up to 12 months of past-due rent and up to three months of future rent are distributing money at a turtle’s pace, seemingly unconcerned that applicants are often days away from eviction.

On a Facebook support group for assistance applicants, some report getting evicted while their assistance applications languish. “Got evicted today with a 24-hour notice,” wrote Orlando resident Joselyn Bisono. “I’m so depressed. No money. Nowhere to go. I feel so ashamed and lonely.”

In Broward County, distribution has been excruciatingly slow. Just 3,630 households out of 14,142 tenants who applied through the county’s online portal have received payments, averaging $8,011, through last week, county data shows. Programs in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have each distributed aid to more than twice as many homes.

Applicants wonder whether governments can do anything right when it comes to helping people keep their homes, their livelihoods, and their dignity.

“It’s a complete communication breakdown,” said Judith Krim, a Stuart resident who has been waiting since August to find out if she’ll be approved for assistance by a statewide program run by the Department of Children and Families. “There’s no way to get any relief because you cannot get any response from the state.”

Few successes, many complaints

Thirty-two large Florida counties and cities, along with the state, created separate programs this year to distribute $1.97 billion federal dollars earmarked for rental assistance. Nationwide, $46.6 billion was earmarked to help prevent tenants who experienced loss of income from become homeless.

But after depositing the first $1.4 billion in January, those Florida programs have operated with widely varying results.

A few success stories stand out:

Miami-Dade County, for example, distributed 100% of its initial $60.9 million allocation by Sept. 30, according to U.S. Treasury Dept. data. The county is quickly distributing a second allocation of $28.9 million, Miami-Dade officials say.

Palm Beach County has distributed 100% of its initial $45.2 million allocation and is now working through another $19.6 million.

Broward County’s program, by contrast, is among nine that distributed 32% or less of their available funds through Sept. 30. Just $19.9 million of the county’s $59 million allocation had gone to those in need.

In October, beset with complaints, County Administrator Bertha Henry terminated the county’s contract with a private vendor, Tetra Tech Recovery Services, and created a “strike team” of county staff members to move applications more quickly through the system.

Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller said complaints have increased since the county’s program launched in April. He says the slow distribution pace results from efforts to avoid giving money to unqualified applicants. Officials were concerned that the federal government will demand repayment of money given to fraudsters, he said.

But revised guidance from the Treasury Department encourages programs to relax their documentation requirements and get money out quicker. In cases where an applicant can’t produce documents proving loss of income or risk of homelessness, programs are supposed to accept “self attestation” — or take applicants at their word.

Fort Lauderdale resident Natalie Kasper said her application was denied in July after a caseworker demanded that she submit several years of tax returns.

Geller said he’s not aware of specific reasons why Tetra Tech did not work out. “But looking at the results, it’s absolutely unacceptable. We have to get this done. It’s taken too long.” Tetra Tech officials did not respond to requests to discuss why the company was terminated.

According to data released last week, the number of applicants declared ineligible or who failed to respond to requests for more information — 5,846 — exceeded the 3,916 approved for benefits.

Broward’s program is required to confirm whether applicants are also seeking aid from the state or cities operating their own rental assistance programs, said Natalie Beasley, assistant director of Broward’s Family Services Division, which oversees the assistance program. She said that under Treasury Dept. guidelines, “we cannot pay for the same months of assistance that has been paid by another entity.” Most applicants, she added, “appear to be applying for assistance across multiple programs.”

Speeding up distribution of benefits, Geller said, will require the county to accept some degree of fraud. “It’s a tradeoff,” he said.

Another problem, Geller said, is that many landlords have refused to participate in the program because they would rather bring in new tenants at higher rental rates. Participation requires landlords to allow tenants to remain in their units into the future.

Since Tetra Tech’s contract was terminated, the distribution pace has sped up significantly, Beasley said. After distributing just 31% of its $59 million to 2,840 households through Sept. 30, the county as of last week has spent 51% and provided funds to 3,772 homes. That figure includes 142 tenants facing eviction who qualified for assistance through a special mediation program set up with the county’s court system.

Stories shared in support group

Florida’s statewide program distributed just 24 percent of its initial $871 million allocation to 43,914 households through Sept. 30. How much has been distributed since then is unknown. Officials of the Department of Children and Families did not produce up-to-date figures requested by the South Florida Sun Sentinel early last week. Nor did they respond to questions about issues identified by members of a Facebook support group created by applicants.

The group, which has 1,200 members, identifies common issues when trying to navigate the program’s website or call for assistance:

Completed applications can be stuck for weeks or months in a “quality check” status. Wait times on hold stretch into hours even when an automated voice predicts much shorter waits. Applicants reach program representatives who say they have no power to affect their cases beyond flagging them for “escalation.” Workers give conflicting information about funding eligibility and documentation requirements. And workers use jargon that isn’t explained, such as requiring an applicant to produce “third-party verification.” Members of the group shared news last week about in-person assistance centers opening across the state. Two members then posted photos of an empty desk at the Fort Myers assistance center, saying they’d made reservations but no worker showed up.

Stuart resident Judith Krim described getting an email directing her to log in to her application account and upload documentation proving that she suffered a loss of income. But when she logged in, there was no way to upload revised documents.

Stephen Fletcher of North Lauderdale says he’s been waiting since September to find out whether he’ll be approved for three months of rent assistance. When he sought help last week at a DCF-operated assistance center near his home, he said he could not reach anyone.

Voice mail messages go unreturned and caseworkers keep changing, he said. “I’ve called 10 times and now I can’t even get a human on the phone,” he said.

Why some programs succeed

What separates programs with high distribution rates from those that struggle to get money out is a willingness to “streamline” qualification processes, said Sarah Gallagher, senior project director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s program, End Rental Arrears to Stop Evictions (ERASE).

Philadelphia’s program, she said, uses data from Medicaid and other benefit programs to prequalify likely recipients. Connecticut approves applicants from low-income census tracts who self-certify that they lost income or are at risk of homelessness.

Concerns that the federal government will “claw back” funds given to unqualified applicants, she said, are unfounded. “Recent federal guidance is clear that they’re not going to do that and that’s not a fear [program officials] should have.”

In fact, an Oct. 4 letter from the Treasury Department warned programs that failed to distribute 90% of their funds by Sept. 30 that they could be required to give back up to 10% of their undistributed money. Programs can avoid that by submitting improvement plans that describe how they plan to loosen eligibility guidelines, including by requiring less documentation and allowing more self-attestation, to speed up distribution.

Morning Update Newsletter

Daily

Start your day with the top stories in South Florida.

Organizers of Miami-Dade County’s assistance program have been able to distribute more than $80 million of its funds to 8,200 households because leaders there prepared early, said Ignacio Ortiz-Petit, spokesman for the county’s Public Housing and Community Development department. “When we learned that there might be federal assistance, we already started to get ready,” he said. “Once the money got here, we were pretty close to being set up.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, former director of the non-profit advocacy group for low-income residents, Catalyst Miami, took a personal interest in the program’s launch, Ortiz-Pettit said.

Michael Liu, the county’s public housing director, directly oversaw its creation. “He’s a taskmaster, always asking for weekly and daily tallies: ‘How much money is going out the door? What are we doing?’”

While the county hired two outside vendors, it also worked closely with charities and community organizations to spread the word among potential applicants, he said. They advertised on social media, television and print publications in English, Spanish and Creole.

An ombudsman position was created to help expedite applications that had issues, he said. “If we received a complaint, we immediately flag it and send it to the ombudsman to make sure it doesn’t get lost.”

Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at rhurtibise@sunsentinel.com.