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Orange County Prepares to Distribute $15.9M in Rental Aid

The Florida county announced plans on Aug. 30 to distribute a new round of rental assistance starting on Oct. 1. Eligible applicants could receive as much as $20,000 or 18 months of assistance.

(TNS) — With eviction filings on pace to set a 13-year high, Orange County, Fla., announced plans Tuesday, Aug. 30, to begin distributing nearly $16 million in federal emergency rental aide it received in March.

The new round of rental assistance will launch Oct. 1 with some checks paid directly to renters, a change which worried at least one commissioner.

Eligible applicants could get up to $20,000 or 18 months of assistance.

In a presentation to Orange County commissioners, who unanimously approved the tentative plan, Lavon Williams, newly appointed deputy director of community and family services, said the county hopes to get financial help to the most vulnerable households.

“We’re going to be developing a marketing plan for the new program to include community outreach,” she said.

The county may train organizations who serve low-income communities to help prospective recipients apply for aid.

Applicants must be a least a month behind on rent and will be required to provide proof they fit under income guidelines.

Some acceptable documents are 2021 federal tax returns; proof of income eligibility for other federal or state assistance like food stamps; a paycheck stub or employer wage statement; or proof they live at an address located in a low-income census tract.

“Applications that are not complete take longer to process,” Williams said.

To be eligible for the income-based program, a single person could earn no more than $46,480, eighty percent of the average median income; a two-person household could not have a combined income greater than $53,120; and a three-person household would be limited to $59,760.

Some applicants may be required to prove financial hardship.

Since federal rental assistance funds became available through acts of Congress beginning in 2020, Orange County residents have been awarded $252 million, including $197 million distributed through the state Department of Children & Families, the most of any Florida county.

Applicants who received the maximum award of $20,000 aren’t eligible for this round.

Federal guidelines require the program to give priority to tenants facing an eviction that has been filed with the Clerk of Courts.

In Orange County, nearly 9,800 evictions have been filed since the beginning of the year, about 40 a day.

At the current pace, 2022 eviction filings will exceed not just filings in 2021 and 2020 when government moratoriums held down the number of cases but every year since at least 2009, according to figures provided through Monday by the Orange County Clerk of Courts.

Williams said program guidelines will give priority to households with minor children and households that previously received less than 10 months of assistance from other rental-relief programs — whether aid was provided by the state, county or city of Orlando.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, elected to a second four-year term last week, said the federally funded assistance program is intended to keep people in their homes as rents continue to rise amid a housing shortage fueled by population growth.

“These services are still absolutely critical,” he said.

Unlike the county’s previous assistance program, a landlord’s participation is not required for an applicant to receive aid.

The program will cut checks directly to some applicants, which concerned Commissioner Victoria Siplin.

“I just don’t understand how we’re just going to write a check to a tenant with hopes that they do the right thing,” she said.

Siplin said she was concerned about consequences for a tenant who used the money for something other than housing.

Williams said recipients will be required to acknowledge they are obligated to use the funds to pay rent.

“Those details are being worked out,” she said.

Commissioner Emily Bonilla, whose proposal to cap rent increases for a year is headed to the Nov. 8 ballot for voters to decide, said she was concerned that the emergency assistance intended to prevent homelessness was encouraging landlords to raise rents higher.

“I’m just concerned we’re getting away from what this funding was meant for... and it’s putting people in a situation where now we have landlords taking advantage of this funding, raising people’s rents,” she said. “We don’t have any data to show what happens to the residents after the landlord got the money.”

In the previous program, the average award was about $6,000.

More than 12,000 households applied. The program provided assistance to about 5,200 households.

Funding was included in the American Recovery Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill approved by Congress in March 2021.

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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