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Community Voices: For many, rental assistance is key to getting through the pandemic

Eric Garduño

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Construction began in December on Ascent St. Petersburg at 225 1st Ave., one of three major construction projects in the city.

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“He walked into my office in tears,” is how Cassi Harbuck first describes one encounter with a resident who had been hit hard by the Covid-19 emergency. Cassi is a regional manager for Palomar Properties, which operates nine apartment communities in Pinellas County. “He was embarrassed that he lost his job and couldn’t make rent. He didn’t know where to turn to for help,” Cassi added. 

This is the start of a familiar story for property managers throughout the Tampa Bay region who have seen many residents struggling to make their monthly rent. Model residents who never missed a payment were suddenly in unfamiliar economic stress due to layoffs, business closures and reduced hours, all brought on by the pandemic.

At its height last year, the unemployment rate for the Tampa Bay region was a staggering 13.2 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By November the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.7 percent. While many families are still struggling to find work, even households that were reemployed face a stack of bills that piled up while they were out of work. According to projections by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 1.34 million households across the country were expected to accumulate $7.2 billion in unpaid rent by the end of 2020.

Throughout 2020, local governments, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk and Manatee Counties directed a portion of CARES Act funds they received towards rental assistance programs for residents experiencing pandemic-related hardships. Each program had slightly different rules and procedures. In Pinellas County for example, 211 Tampa Bay Cares was tapped to implement over $26 million through Pinellas CARES, the County’s Covid-19 rental assistance program. 

Like many other property managers, Cassi was able to direct her residents to the Pinellas CARES program. 211 Tampa Bay Cares made this easy by providing one-page summaries on how to apply for assistance, which apartment managers distributed to their residents. According to the Bay Area Apartment Association (BAAA), which represents apartment communities in the greater Tampa Bay region, 84% of apartment managers in Pinellas County who responded to a survey helped their residents apply for assistance.

“Pinellas CARES was a lifeline for many of our residents and for us,” Cassi added. Thanks to the rent Pinellas CARES covered for residents, her properties were able to avoid staff layoffs and stay current on mortgage, insurance, and tax payments. By November, after serving more than 8,600 households, Pinellas CARES had expended all its funding and discontinued accepting applications, but new programs were able to fill the void. 

For instance, with CARES Act funding made available to the Pinellas Community Foundation, Gulfcoast Legal Services was able to offer expedited rental assistance that covered all outstanding rental debt through December 2020.  David Gutierrez, a property manager in Clearwater, helped some of his residents apply for this help. 

“One of my residents fell behind when she took time off of work because her child tested positive for Covid-19,” remarked David. His resident could not catch up on rent because she had her hours reduced when she returned to work, so he connected her with Gulf Coast Legal Services after learning about their program through a webinar organized by BAAA. “Their team was very responsive and quick,” David continued, “and we received payment for all the back rent in less than two weeks.”

By the close of the year, Gulfcoast Legal Services was able to help over 100 households wipe away their rental debt. “We know both renters and rental properties have been hit hard by the pandemic through no fault of their own,” said Tammy Greer, Executive Director of Gulfcoast Legal Services.  “Evictions have lasting impacts on renters and cost landlords time and money, and most times they never collect the rent owed; our programs give both renters and landlords an alternative that makes everyone whole,” she added.

Thanks in part to rental assistance programs, dire predictions of an unprecedented wave of evictions have not come to pass. For instance, in August the Aspen Institute projected that up to 21% of renter households could face eviction by the end of 2020. According to the Pinellas County Clerk’s records, after the State’s eviction moratorium ended, eviction filings between October and December 2020 are below filings for each month in 2019. They also represent less than 1% of the more than 147,000 renter households in the county. 

An additional $25 billion for rental assistance programs was included in the new stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress at the end of last year. Florida is projected to receive up to $1.4 billion of these funds. “Rental assistance has been a top priority for our industry in Florida and across the country,” noted Amanda Gill, Government Affairs Director for the Florida Apartment Association.  “We are all thrilled that this additional help is on the way.”

The stimulus bill allows households that have a COVID-19 related hardship may receive up to 12 months of rental assistance. Rent payments will go directly to property managers, and property managers can help residents apply for assistance or apply on their behalf with their consent. Households must be at or below 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) at time of application, which for the Tampa Bay region is about $61,000 for a family of four.

The Federal government has until Jan. 27 to distribute the new funds. In the meantime, Amanda notes that “our data shows that property managers are three times more likely to work with residents to create a payment plan, than file an eviction. I would encourage anyone who is behind on rent, to start a dialogue with your property manager. You may be surprised by the flexibility offered, or their willingness to help point you towards rental assistance programs that can assist you during this time.”

Eric Garduño is Government Affairs Director of the Bay Area Apartment Association.

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