Commission to consider $11 million rental assistance program

County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes, left, talks with Kathy Bryant, a Marion County commissioner, before the start of a meeting in this June file photo. The commission will consider an $11 million rental and utility assistance program on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Marion County Commissioners will consider an $11 million rental and utility assistance program at their Tuesday meeting.

While the commission will consider a partnership with the United Way of Marion County to administer the $11 million from the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, the county abandoned a previous $1 million effort with the United Way using CARES Act money.

While it was not clear on Monday how much of the county’s allotment of $64 million in CARES funds was spent on housing assistance, the $1 million contract with the United Way fell by the wayside.

Scot Quintel, United Way president, said red tape and tight deadlines made distributing the money difficult.

“There were a lot of lessons learned,” he said on Friday, adding they streamlined processes, added staff and will partner with other organizations to promote the program.

The county did not immediately respond to questions about how they selected the United Way for the program.

But some, including Renee Thompson, believe the courts need more involvement in the program.

Thompson, an attorney and local mediator, will speak to the commission on Tuesday.

“I would also have a concern about the judicial system having a lack of communication as to what’s going on with the tenant and landlord outside of the system,” she said. “There would be a number of items that could be addressed within the system that are not addressed outside of the system.”

In Orange County, for example, the Orange County Bar Association, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida and other legal assistance agencies are involved with the rental assistance effort. Community Legal Services already deals with many rental issues in Marion County.

Thompson said including the judicial system would give applicants privacy and protection.

“The other concern that I have is when relief monies are provided, there’s an application in the settlement process that the applicants have to go through,” Thompson said. “And if they go through that during the court process, they’re entitled to a mediation, which entitles them to confidentiality and other protections which are provided by statutes.”

Under the contract, the United Way gets an administration fee of up to 8% on the $11 million, or $880,000.

Also, 90% of the money must go to pay rent or utility bills.

The agreement gives the United Way $1.82 million upfront, with additional $1 million increases as needed.

To qualify, at least one person in a family must be eligible for unemployment or experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19. Also, families must prove a risk of homelessness or housing instability and have a family income 80% or lower than the local Area Median Income (AMI).

In addition to rent, the program also covers electric, gas and water bills. The money cannot go to mortgage payments or other expenses like cable television.

The county commission meeting starts at 9 a.m. on Tuesday at the county auditorium, 601 SE 25th Ave.

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