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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Alachua County opens registration for rental aid

“This kind of action needed to happen sooner,” Gainesville resident Shanna Johnson said

Alachua County opened applications for an Emergency Rental Assistance Program March 15.

After receiving a federal grant of $8.1 million in funds for a rental assistance program in January, the county launched the program to assist households struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It can assist eligible households, specifically those below the 80% median income, with the payment of late rent and utilities, or pay the rent in advance.

The Treasury Department provided this grant to Alachua County and other counties across the nation as a part of the COVID-19 relief bill signed by former President Donald Trump, which included the CDC’s eviction moratorium that President Joe Biden extended to March 31.

People who seek financial help must be directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Alachua County Communications Director Mark Sexton said. According to the program’s application page, one or more adults in the household must have qualified for unemployment benefits or experienced a reduction in household income on or after March 13, 2020.

“It's not something that's going to assist somebody who has been having financial difficulties, stemming back before COVID,” Sexton said.

The county is expected to follow strict federal guidelines limiting counties to cover only eligible renters below 80% of median income in the area and prioritize those below 50% of median income in the area, he said. These guidelines would limit the eligible recipients of the rent aid to, for example, a household size of four people who have a combined income of $55,850.

The money will not be handed over to the renters themselves. Instead, the county will send the requested payments directly to the landlords, property managers and utility companies.

Regardless of the household size, each household is limited to $15,000 of assistance. However, the limit may change based on the demand for assistance from the program, Sexton said.

He said more than 1,000 people have completed, started or are in the process of finishing registration for the rental assistance program, as of Tuesday night.

“Fifteen thousand dollars would be life-changing for a lot of these households,” said Chair of the Alachua County Labor Coalition Jeremiah Tattersall. “It would mean that they don’t have to make the decision between food and housing or health care and housing.”

The County Labor Coalition has a housing committee focusing on renters rights issues through an eviction resistance task force that helps people continue to live in their homes.

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The coalition connects citizens who filed for evictions to information about the CDC eviction moratorium, the CARES Act Fund, the ERAP and contact information with Three Rivers Legal Services, an affordable legal service assisting lower-income Florida residents.

These services and grants, especially the CDC eviction moratorium, keep hundreds if not thousands of Alachua County citizens from facing eviction, Tattersall said.

Kai Christmas, a 24-year-old Gainesville resident, co-founded Gainesville COVID-19 Mutual Aid, a Facebook group allowing residents to give or receive help, after they saw the need for community outreach about one year ago.

Since then, Christmas has spoken with dozens of Gainesville citizens in need of monetary assistance to get them a hotel for the night or food to get them through the day.

“As COVID was starting to take hold in our community, we knew that it would have a disproportionate effect on our most marginalized community members,” they said.

The Facebook group receives a lot of posts from homeless people as well, Christmas said.

“I don't see any way that this program addresses our houseless neighbors,” they said. “And that's one huge area that I would say needs additional resources.”

One member of the Facebook group, 51-year-old Gainesville resident Shanna Johnson, said she joined the group in May 2020 to become a helper within the community.

Since the start of the pandemic, she made an effort to help residents obtain food through the Civic Media Center and share COVID-19 resources from Indivisible Gainesville with community members in the Facebook group.

“I really think this kind of action needed to happen sooner,” Johnson said. “I know there's a lot of things that go into getting this done, but I just feel like it didn't have to be so hard for so many.”

She said she’s noticed many calls for help securing shelter and hotel rooms within the group. By sharing the link to ERAP’s registration page, she hoped it would help someone who risks losing housing or is trying to get housing.

Johnson pointed out that the application is online, which might be inconvenient for people who do not have easy access to the internet.

“I feel like the people who need the help usually have the least amount of resources,” she said.

Contact Jiselle Lee at Follow her on Twitte @jiselle_lee.

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Jiselle Lee

Jiselle Lee is a second-year journalism student and the East Gainesville Reporter. This is her second semester at The Alligator, and she is excited to continue her work at the Metro desk. In her spare time, she enjoys eating her way around Gainesville.

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