County partnership with United Way for rent relief on county commission agenda

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Posted March 5, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette

Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Marion County Commissioners will consider establishing an $11 million rental and utility assistance fund at their Tuesday meeting.

The money comes from a federal program separate from the CARES Act.

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

The agency also got $750,000 for rental assistance through CARES, which it distributed. But the $1 million proved too much to handle, said Scot Quintel, United Way president.

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

The county did not immediately respond to requests for comments on this story.

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.

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

An attorney and local mediator, Thompson 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 were involved with the 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.” 

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

To qualify, at least one person in a family must have qualified 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 of 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.

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