By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Relief funds for Hillsborough County residents struggling to pay rent and utilities due to coronavirus pandemic hardships are expected to be available starting in mid-March, according to a report that was to be reviewed by County commissioners at their Feb. 17 meeting.
County officials say Hillsborough County has received $32.4 million from the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which is part of the federal Consolidate Appropriations Act of 2021.
Program funds are for local governments with populations of at least 200,000 residents. The City of Tampa reportedly received $12 million in ERAP funds. Funds will be available through Dec. 31, but U.S. Treasury officials will begin to recapture and reallocate funds starting on Sept. 30 if local officials have not expended their allocations, according to the County report.
Eligible for ERAP funds are local renters with incomes no more than 80 percent of their area’s median income (AMI) who meet certain conditions as they relate to such things as employment status, economic impact and the risk of homelessness or housing instability. Priority is for residents whose household income is no more than 50 percent of the AMI and in which one or more of the family members are unemployed for at least 90 days.
The report continues, noting that 90 percent of funds received must be used for shelter and utility expenses “explicitly linked to housing stability services.” The remaining 10 percent can be used for administrative expenses. Payments are to go directly to landlords and utility companies unless after contact they refuse to participate.
In addition to outlining overall ERAP federal program guidelines, the report details County objectives for the funding, which include working with landlords to secure their buy-in and developing a community outreach plan in conjunction with nonprofits, social services providers, faith-based organizations and minority radio stations and media outlets to help spread the word.
Application priority is to be given “to those most in need” and to ensure equitable distribution “across the County’s geographic regions.”
The aim is “to foster housing stability” and to pay landlords “rental arrears up to $5,000 per household,” which County officials say would allow them “to assist between 7,400 and 10,000 residents/families.”
The intent is for a “simple” and “user-friendly” application process “with ample online and call center support” and to build an online system “to establish transparency and trust between landlords and their tenants, especially as it concerns the application of award benefits for past-due obligations.”
Necessary documentation to support “rigorous eligibility determinations” would include such things as proof of pandemic hardship, unemployment and an active lease. To receive payments, landlords would need to provide eviction forbearances.
As for steps taken to put this program in place, the report notes that the County’s social services department will take the lead and partner with the County’s clerk of courts to distribute payments. Negotiations were underway with Ernst & Young to modify and re-use the online application portal used for prior housing and utility assistance and to secure call center support for the duration of the program.
County officials were aiming for a mid-March program launch and expecting the program to run for about four months. A partnership with city officials to allow County officials to administer the program on behalf of city residents is under consideration as a means to secure a consistent Countywide approach.
The County’s Feb. 17 report to County commissioners included as well an update on COVID-19 testing, vaccination and the status of personal protection equipment (PPE). As of Feb. 6 in Hillsborough County, 92,529 residents had been vaccinated and 1,034,812 tests had been conducted. Distribution of PPE broke down as follows: 584,390 pairs of gloves, 1,339,365 masks, 241,768 face shields, 348,155 gowns and 4,687 goggles.
According to the County’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of Feb. 14, the total number of cases and fatalities amounted to 106,661 and 1,418, respectively, resulting in a fatality rate of 1.33 percent. The rate for testing positive was 8.09 percent, based on the 14-day rolling average ending Feb. 7.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough County schools, since July 31 and through 9:15 a.m. Feb. 16, reported 4,989 cases of COVID-19 for students and employees. Employees accounted for 1,727 cases, or 34.6 percent of the overall total. Students across all levels of schooling accounted for 3,262, or 65.4 percent of the overall total. Employees classified as district staff accounted for 167 cases, or 9.7 percent of the employee cases reported.
Hillsborough’s 28 traditional high schools accounted for 1,648 cases, which amounted to one-third of all cases for students and teachers combined, reported as of 9:15 a.m. Feb. 16. In turn, eight high schools — Plant (137 cases), Newsome (115), Steinbrenner (109), Alonso (89), Sumner (89), Durant (84), Sickles (80) and Plant City (73) — accounted for 776 cases, or 47.1 percent of the combined student and teacher total.
Rounding out the high schools in south Hillsborough County are Riverview (64 cases), East Bay (54 cases), Spoto (45 cases) and Lennard (31 cases). The only high schools with fewer cases than Lennard were Middleton (20), King (24) and Wharton (19).
These numbers do not include charter schools serving the high school grades.
To review the COVID-19 report submitted to commissioners for their Feb. 17 meeting, click the agenda at https://bit.ly/3jUpn55. To view the meeting, visit the Hillsborough County Meetings channel at www.YouTube.com.