ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County announced Friday it’s launching phase two of its emergency rental assistance (ERA) program this weekend. Residents of unincorporated Orange County can begin applying for more than $13 million in available funds on Saturday at 8 a.m. 

Originally scheduled to launch Oct. 1, the county told Spectrum News in a written statement that the ERA2 program’s launch delay was “due to Hurricane Ian and the emergency activation of county resources and staff.”

Orange County was allocated more than $39 million in federal funds for ERA2, but it has only received $16 million – 40 percent of the total amount – and doesn’t anticipate receiving the remainder. 

As Spectrum News’ Watchdog team previously reported, the county failed to meet spending deadlines set by the U.S. Treasury Department, positioning it to lose the remaining $23 million of funds intended to help keep struggling renters in their homes. Those remaining funds will be reallocated to other, better-performing programs – ideally programs in the same state, according to Treasury guidance.

In total, $252 million of ERA funds have been obligated to county residents, between programs administered by Orange County, the state of Florida and the City of Orlando, according to the county. The city and state programs have each exhausted their respective ERA2 allocations, and are now closed to new applicants.

What You Need To Know

  • Orange County was supposed to get $39 million in ERA2, but has only received $16 million and won’t receive more, based on its failure to meet spending deadlines set by the U.S. Treasury

  • ERA2 guidelines require Orange County to pay eligible tenants directly, in cases where landlords won’t accept the funds themselves

  • For ERA2, the county has expanded eligibility requirements, to include renters impacted by rental increases above 10 percent

  • Priority will be given to households with children ages 17 and under, as well as applicants who have received less than 10 months of ERA from other programs, like OUR Florida

The federal rules for ERA2 differ from the first round of funding in several key ways, and generally expand eligibility requirements for renters who might want to take advantage of the funds.

Under ERA1 guidelines, renters had to have suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19, either directly or indirectly. But under ERA2, U.S. Treasury guidelines only require renters to have suffered financial hardship during COVID-19. 

Additionally, the ERA2 guidelines require programs like Orange County’s to pay renters directly, in cases where landlords refuse to participate. That’s a change from ERA1, which allowed — but didn’t require — programs to administer payments directly to tenants. 

Commissioners were divided on their support of such direct-to-tenant payments, during discussions leading up to their final approval of the ERA2 program.

“I'm still more secure with writing checks to landlords,” District 6 Commissioner Victoria Siplin said during a commissioners' meeting August 30. “I just don’t understand how we’re just going to write the check to a tenant, with hopes that they do the right thing — and if they don’t, what is the legal ramification so we can recoup the funds?”

Assistant County Attorney Cristina Berrio pointed to the Treasury’s guidance on reporting fraud, waste and abuse, saying that any fraud would be reported to the sheriff’s office. The state attorney, ultimately, would prosecute anyone who misuses the funding, Berrio said.

For ERA2, the county has expanded eligibility requirements, to include renters impacted by rental increases of more than 10%. District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla referenced landlord data she’d obtained from the county’s first program, showing that many of the top ERA recipients also recently raised rents – some by 75-80%, she said.

“The data that I have is very concerning — that these recipients, landlords of these funds, are now raising rents on these tenants," Bonilla said. "So did we help (the tenants) or cause more harm? I want to make sure that what we’re doing is not causing more problems.”

Bonilla added that she’d like for the county’s ERA program to have the option to skip the landlord entirely, and pay the tenant directly — perhaps to help them find a new, more affordable place. Per federal guidelines, up to 10% of the county’s funding allocation could be used for such housing stability services.

But as far as entirely skipping that step of trying to work with landlords first, before paying tenants — that’s not the direction the county is recommending, said Lavon Williams, Deputy Director of Community and Family Services.

“It is the desire that we be able to stabilize people in homes, stabilize their financial situations, so that they can remain in place,” Williams told Spectrum News.

For those suffering from financial hardships unrelated to a rental increase, the county will continue to require that tenants are already be behind in rent by at least a month — an additional requirement not mandated by the U.S. Treasury under ERA2.

Orange County will also continue to prioritize applicants who are already facing an eviction: a legal process that moves quickly in Florida, providing renters only three days to catch up on late rent before a formal summons can be filed against them. 

“We know that the eviction process moves faster than ERA,” Jorge Acosta Palmer, a senior attorney for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, previously told Spectrum News. “We have been trying to educate tenants early on: If you’re a tenant, the earlier you act, the more options you’re going to have.”

But several renters tell Spectrum News they continue to struggle — with some facing eviction — after previously being denied from Orange County’s ERA program because they weren’t yet behind on their rent. 

Throughout the pandemic, Spectrum News has heard from dozens of Florida renters and landlords who’ve had to wait weeks or months for ERA payments from various programs to come through. Some renters were evicted even after their landlords received funds.

“We’re trying to get to the people who most critically need rental assistance first,” Williams said. “We do not think that that will incentivize landlords to increase rent or move quickly through evictions.”

The news of the rental assistance is welcomed relief for many renters in unincorporated Orange County who are worried about possibly losing their home due to high rent costs. 

Jessy Correa, a mother of six, is constantly juggling expenses to make ends meet.  But despite all of her expenses and the general rising costs caused by inflation, she’s managed to keep up with her rent. 

She doesn’t want to lose her home, but says covering those rental costs doesn’t leave her with much money left to cover the costs of everything else each month.

“It’s not like I’m behind rent because I can afford it, it is overwhelming and exhausting and I’m having to get creative with the little that I have in between,” said Correa.

“Fifteen days and $400 — who really lives off of that with six kids?" she asked. "That’s the truth.”

While Correa believes the renewed rental assistance is a good thing, she’s worried it won't be enough for renters who may already be sliding toward eviction and might not get the assistance in time.

Of the $16 million it has received for ERA2, Orange County confirmed just over $13.5 million would be made available to residents. The county has set aside 15 percent of its ERA2 money for administrative costs, the maximum amount permitted by federal guidelines.