Florida rental assistance program fails

This article represents the opinion of the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.

The federally funded housing assistance had a laudable goal: to keep America’s renters hard hit by the pandemic from being evicted on the streets. But as Catherine Owens of Temple Terrace showed, Floridians in need were sometimes pushed aside by an indifferent government bureaucracy. The state must ensure that others who have shared this experience do not face homelessness themselves.

Owens found an eviction notice taped to his door three days before Christmas. As the Tampa Bay WeatherLauren Peace chronicled in a report over the weekend that Owens and her 58-year-old mother had just five days to leave, the latest setback in her ordeal with Florida’s emergency relief program.

Owens, 30, had applied for housing assistance three months earlier thanks to the program called Our Florida. Struggling to make ends meet, Owens was approved for assistance in September and told she would receive seven checks totaling more than $8,000, to cover back rent for 2021 and monthly payments through the start of This year.

But the September and August arrears never arrived, and while Owens provided his property manager with documentation that the money was on the way, the apartment company proceeded with the eviction. Owens tried to contact Our Florida; her phone records show she called the helpline more than nine times in December and contacted around 30 times over a three-month period. She would wait on hold before the line disconnected. Is it the state system to help people in distress?

A representative from Our Florida told the Time the program receives more than 11,000 calls to its helpline each day. That should say something about the difficulty these needy Floridians have navigating the bureaucracy. As Florida accelerated the delivery of federally funded rent and utility relief, tenants like Owens also criticized the operation on social media, asking about missing payments and unreturned calls. .

The goal of the program is to provide stable housing and financial security to those who are particularly upset by the pandemic. But a flawed system only heightened the anxiety of Owens and others, not serving plan members and taxpayers. After Owens and his mother were deported, the women spent a night sleeping on the floor of an uncle’s “ruined” house in North Carolina before deciding to return to Florida. A minister from the Tampa church then put the couple up in an Airbnb.

Families deserve better than having to scramble for housing when Florida’s safety net fails. On January 6, after the temperature contacted the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program, with questions regarding Owens’ case, she received an email from the agency with an apology regarding her phone system. Owens heard after the Time published this story on its website last week; staff said they were continuing to work to get her home.

It shouldn’t take a case highlighted in the media for state agents to do their jobs, return phone calls and follow up on behalf of the clients they are supposed to serve. If the department has issues with phones, case managers, or any combination of technology and staff, it needs to address them immediately before more like Owens faces an unstable future. Taxpayers are already paying dearly to spare families this hassle, and they expect government employees not to add to the hassle.

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Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. To follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinionated news.

Ryan H. Bowman