Florida launches new emergency rental assistance program

More help is on the way for people in Florida who are potentially facing eviction due to the pandemic. Monday, the state launched a new $800 million emergency rental assistance program. It could be one of the last remaining protections after a federal judge ruled the nationwide ban on eviction unconstitutional.  

The pandemic forced millions out of work with no money to pay rent to landlords with their own bills to pay.

"We've always seen them, it's always been a public health crisis," said William Kilgore, founding member of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, as he described the issue of evictions. "It kind of turned into this catastrophe where it's like, well, we can't be evicting people when there's this horrible plague."

Eviction moratoriums went in place. Florida's ended in September. The CDC's nationwide ban expires June 30th. But, without real "teeth," it didn't protect everyone. St. Petersburg Tenants Union tracked more than 2,000 writs of possession, or eviction orders, issued in Pinellas County between June 2020 and April 2021.

"Even just being unemployed for a couple months, a lot of folks had trouble accessing unemployment, they had trouble accessing some of these benefits," Kilgore said. "They had something screwed up on their tax refund that they weren't able to get the stimulus. That put a lot of folks really behind."

Last week, a federal judge ruled the CDC moratorium unconstitutional. The justice department is appealing. For now, the moratorium remains in place.

Days after the decision, the state launched Our Florida emergency rental assistance program. Those eligible to apply earn below 80% of the area median income, have qualified for unemployment, faced financial hardship from the pandemic, are at risk of losing their home or are living in unstable or unhealthy conditions.  

Priority will be given to renters with income at or below 50% of the AMI as well as those who've experienced unemployment in the past 90 days. You can apply at OurFlorida.com.

The Department of Treasury issued $1.4 billion to Florida in emergency rental assistance funds earlier this year. $529 million of that money was distributed directly by local governments with populations over 200,000. Our Florida will give out the remaining $800 million.

"Rural counties and things like that, they have under 200,000 people, they haven't had any access to this money yet so it's a big deal," Kilgore said.

It's a short-term blessing. Long-term, Kilgore said what needs to change is society's view of housing.

"It's viewed as a consumer commodity and it really should be viewed as a utility," Kilgore said. "it's a public utility. Everybody has a right to have a roof over their heads."