County establishes $11 million in rental utility assistance fund

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Posted March 8, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette

Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Marion County Commissioners established an $11 million rental and utility assistance fund recently.

On March 2, the commission approved a partnership with the United Way of Marion County to administer the money, but also added the court system to the program.

Initially, the United Way would solely administer the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, but some felt the court had a role as it handles eviction cases.

Renee Thompson, a local attorney and mediator, said not including the courts could lead to confusion.

“There’s no communication between the courts and the United Way and the United Way and the courts as to what to do with these pending matters,” Thompson said. “It can create a false sense of security with the tenant that if they receive these monies, they will not be evicted.”

She said Orange and Broward counties established eviction diversion programs to mediate eviction action between tenants and landlords.

The commission decided to involve the courts but stopped short of a diversion program.

As part of the program, the United Way must check if an applicant has an eviction pending. If an eviction is pending, the court would be notified. Any money issued would be held by the clerk of the court until a judge orders the dispersal to the landlord.

The commission voted unanimously to approve the program.

The move comes after the county abandoned a previous $1 million effort with the United Way for housing assistance using CARES Act money.

That money was part of the county’s allotment of $64 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds. While the $1 million contract with the United Way fell by the wayside, the county did not use that money or any of the $64 million directly for housing assistance.

Scot Quintel, United Way president, said red tape and tight deadlines made distributing the $1 million difficult.

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

The agreement gives the United Way $1.82 million upfront and increases by $1 million depending on the applications received.

They United Way also gets an administration fee of up to 8% on the $11 million, or more than $880,000.

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

The county reported receiving $5.5 million for housing assistance through other programs for pandemic relief, including $2,242,899 for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), $2,133,323 through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) program and $1,208,997 through the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program.

So far, the county has used $1.2 million in SHIP money to help 370 clients and $184,000 in CDBG money to help 87 clients, according to the county.

ESG spending was not immediately available.

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