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Florida’s Orange County Prepares to Deliver $15.9 Million in Rent Assistance as Evictions Rise

With eviction applications poised to reach the highest figure in 13 years, Orange County on Tuesday announced plans to begin distributing the nearly $16 million in emergency federal rent aid it received in March.

The new round of rental aid will get underway on Oct. 1 with some checks paid directly to tenants, a change that 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 temporary plan, Lavon Williams, newly appointed deputy director of community and family services, said the county hopes to get financial help for the most vulnerable households.

“We will develop a marketing plan for the new program that includes community outreach,” he said.

The county can train organizations that serve low-income communities to help potential beneficiaries apply for help.

Applicants must be at least one month late in paying their rent and will be required to provide proof that they are making adjustments based on their income.

Some acceptable documents are 2021 federal tax returns; proof of income eligibility for other federal or state aid such as food stamps; an employer’s checkbook or wage statement; or proof that you live at an address located on 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 cannot earn more than $46,480, 80% of the median median income; a two-person household cannot 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 demonstrate financial hardship.

Since federal rental assistance funds became available through congressional bills beginning in 2020, Orange County residents have received $252 million, including $197 million distributed through the state Department of Children and Families, the most of any Florida county.

Applicants who received the maximum prize of $20,000 are not eligible for this round.

Federal guidelines require the program to prioritize tenants facing an eviction that has been filed in court.

In Orange County, nearly 9800 evictions have been filed since the beginning of the year, about 40 per day.

At the current pace, 2022 eviction applications will surpass not only the 2021 and 2020 applications when government moratoriums reduced 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 the program’s guidelines will prioritize homes with minor children and households that previously received less than 10 months of assistance from other rental relief programs, whether the help has been 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 aims to keep people in their homes while rents continue to rise amid a housing shortage driven by population growth.

“These services remain absolutely critical,” he said.

Unlike the county’s previous assistance program, owner participation is not required for the applicant to receive assistance.

The program will write checks directly to some applicants, which worried Commissioner Victoria Siplin.

“I just don’t understand how we’re going to write a check to a tenant in the hope that they’ll do the right thing,” he said.

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

Williams said beneficiaries will need to recognize that they are required to use the funds to pay rent.

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

Commissioner Emily Bonilla, whose proposal to limit rent increases for one year will be put on the Nov. 8 ballot for voters to decide, said she was concerned that emergency assistance aimed at preventing homelessness would encourage landlords to raise rents.

“I’m just worried that we’re moving away from the purpose of these funds … and it’s putting people in a situation where we now have landlords taking advantage of these funds, raising people’s rents,” he said. “We don’t have any data showing what happens to residents after the landlord receives the money.”

In the previous program, the average aid was around $6,000.

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

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

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