As part of the ongoing fight to mitigate the negative impacts of skyrocketing rents and displacement of residents, Pinellas County is expanding its rental assistance program and sharing funding with the City of St. Petersburg.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to offer emergency rental assistance (ERA) for those forced into area motels and hotels. The resolution also allows the county to share funding with its largest city after St. Petersburg exhausted its federal ERA money.
The county received nearly $46 million in ERA funds through the Consolidated Appropriation and American Rescue Plan Acts of 2021, of which $18.2 million remains. St. Pete received just over $14 million through the pandemic-era emergency measures, and is urgently trying to secure more money for housing programs. Throngs of residents have repeatedly descended on City Hall to protest the lack of housing options and affordable rent in recent months.
“The need has been within St. Petersburg,” said Barry Burton, county administrator. “That’s where the demand has been.”
Burton explained federal guidelines dictate how Pinellas uses the money, and while the county is expanding ERA eligibility, gaps in service may still occur.
Commissioner Karen Seel relayed that her office received a call for help just before Christmas from a resident living in a hotel. A consulting firm initially advised her that ERA funding was allowable for that situation, before reversing course. She called it a “Christmas crisis.”
Bruce Bussey, community development manager, told commissioners it was a local decision not to include hotels and motels in the ERA program. He said a lack of proper documentation in those cases, along with unclear statute language, was to blame. The Treasury Department, said Bussey, later clarified that hotels and motels qualified as an emergency housing cost under a list of frequently asked questions.
“There are some limitations there,” he added.
Bussey said applicants must have lost their permanent residence during the pandemic, and meet income guidelines. He also advised that the county limit resources for residents in motels and hotels to 120 days. Despite the stipulations, he called the county’s effort a missing piece.
“We think by providing this assistance for a short term … they can then save up and use this program to get that more stabilized housing,” he said. “It’s going to be treated a little differently because it’s really not a rental assistance program …”
Commissioner Rene Flowers said she is happy the county continues partnering with municipalities, as those residents are still a part of Pinellas. Although St. Petersburg exhausted its funding, she said that was the program’s intent.
Flowers said that once residents receive assistance, they then face the challenge of finding something affordable. While that is a conversation for another day, she said it needs to stay in the minds of local officials as the problem continues to grow.
“There’s just so many people that are receiving assistance from these ERAP dollars right now that I think it may exceed what we have in the bank,” said Flowers.
Rob Gerdes, the assistant city administrator for St. Pete, said the city has a list of people waiting for assistance, and those facing evictions are the top priority. He also thanked the county staff for their support and working together to achieve a common goal. The St. Petersburg City Council will receive an update on the matter at Thursday’s meeting.
Bussey added that the county and city’s staff are trying to minimize the ongoing wait for assistance. He said the county is working through St. Pete’s applications, and those recently approved will move through the finance department later this week.