Commissioner Detert calls for more public outreach to find persons facing eviction
As of July 12, Sarasota County staff had disbursed $13 million in Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds to members of the community who needed help to avoid evictions and to pay utility bills, the program director told the County Commission that day.
“Just a few moments ago, we hit another milestone,” Laurel Varnell pointed out in announcing the total. She was providing an ERAP update to the commissioners as part of their regular meeting on July 12.
A set of slides included in the agenda packet had put the total at $12.6 million. That just showed “how much can change in a week and a half,” she said, since she put what she called “some of the final touches” on her presentation.
Altogether, Varnell noted, 950 households have received help, with the federal funding covering 4,000 months’ worth of utility bills and 9,200 months of rent payments.
The county has received the emergency rental assistance funds from the U.S. Treasury Department through two programs, she reminded the board members: ERA1 and ERA2. County staff has disbursed approximately $11 million it received for ERA1, Varnell added. That figure represents about 95% of the total that the federal government gave the county for that part of the program, she said.
With ERA2, Varnell continued, about $1.9 million has been disbursed; county staff has until September 2025 to complete all of its expenditures through that part of the federal program, she pointed out.
All of the ERA1 money must be disbursed by the end of September, a county staff memo noted; otherwise, the federal government can take back the remaining funds.
Varnell also took the opportunity to underscore the “very close partnership” that Sarasota County Government staff has enjoyed with the staff of Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, in getting the money into the hands of people who need it.
As Commission Chair Alan Maio pointed out later, Rushing’s staff has helped ensure that people who have applied for the funds can verify their needs — “that people aren’t just being inventive.”
“It’s been a great deal of work, also with Ms. Rushing’s group,” he said of all the staff members involved in the process.
Rushing’s staff members, Varnell emphasized, have been “phenomenal partners.”
Altogether, Varnell said, 7,300 payments have been issued through the ERA programs, 2,000 applications have been processed, and 160 applications remain in progress.
Further, Varnell noted, the county “ambassadors” — volunteers working in county libraries and other public facilities — have logged 5,000 interactions with people seeking help through the program.
She then showed the board members a bar graph noting the amount of ERAP disbursements by month. The highest total went out in September 2021, the slide showed, with June of this year in second place.
The goal with disbursing the funds, she pointed out, is to do so “as quickly [and] as responsibly as possible.”
Varnell acknowledged, “It took us a few months to get going while we were still setting up the program.”
However, she said, the disbursements have been “pretty consistent” since then.
Another slide illustrated the number of applications that staff had received each month, starting with the May 2021 launch of the program. In that first month, the total was 571. In June, the figure was 198. As of July 12, Varnell said, staff had received another 44 applications.
Has the outreach to the public been sufficient?
When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked Varnell how people learn about the program, Varnell replied that responses to a survey that staff had conducted had made it clear that word of mouth is the primary means of communication, even though county staff has used social media, texts and news releases to educate the public about the available assistance.
“We’ve done a lot more outreach the last couple of months,” Varnell noted.
More should be done to get out the word, Detert said. “When you’re a person in need, you’re busy surviving. You’re not scrolling the internet for good ideas. You’re trying to figure out where you’re going to sleep tonight. So let’s make it as easy as we can.”
Perhaps billboards could be used, Detert suggested. “Let’s step up our communications.”
“Absolutely,” Varnell responded.
Varnell also told the commissioners, “We rely really heavily on our nonprofit partners and also on social service organizations to help us get the word out and help us reach all corners of Sarasota County.”
Survey results and the process going forward
During the presentation, Desiree Casanova, assistant to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, discussed the survey that county staff had conducted in an effort to gauge the impact of the program. A comment box option was included, she pointed out, so people could offer ideas or suggest changes.
The 15-question survey was sent to 889 applicants who had received ERAP funding, Casanova explained. The response rate was 43%.
Among the questions, Casanova continued, were those regarding how persons felt the application process had worked, including whether it was easy to understand the applications.
Further, questions focused on the work of the ambassadors and the reviewers, she said. The latter two individuals on county staff “interact daily with our residents,” she explained.
In reviewing the results, Casanova reported that 90% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that receiving ERAP assistance had prevented an eviction or loss of their home.
Additionally, 84% agreed or strongly agreed that receiving funds enabled them to pay other critical bills.
Altogether, Casanova reported, 92% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that receiving the rental assistance made them feel that their local government wanted to help them during the pandemic, and 92% agreed or strongly agreed that the county’s service had met their expectations.
Then Casanova showed the commissioners a series of slides with quotes from people whom the program had aided.
One of those quotes said, “This program prevented the loss of my home and evictions. It is a [lifesaver] for me. The people involved are so helpful.”
Another quote pointed out, “It can really change someone’s life with this help. It’s amazing.”
Staff receives emails, phone calls and even in-person visits every day, Casanova noted, with people expressing their gratitude. “Many residents felt that we were a lifeline to them.”
Following the presentation, Commissioner Detert questioned why the news media continues to present so many articles about people who have been evicted or who are facing that prospect, if the program was created to prevent those situations.
Varnell told her that 186 applications still are being processed, with more coming in each month. Staff has about $2.7 million remaining to help people, Varnell added.
Further, Varnell continued, staff expects a second tranche of funds through the ERA2 part of the program, plus, potentially, a third tranche.
“Housing is currently one of our top three, if not the top, goal for this County Commission,” Detert told Varnell. “We want to make sure we’re helping as many people as we can.”
Then Detert noted her understanding that the county has to prove residents need the funds before more money will come from the Treasury Department.
Federal government staff does review how many payments the county has made, Varnell replied. “That will determine our second and possibly our third allocation.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, Varnell said that U.S. Treasury staff told county staff members a few weeks ago that Treasury representatives would let county staff know about the timing of the next allocation of funding, “and that was a few weeks ago.”
A staff memo in the July 12 agenda packet explained that the U.S. Treasury Department recently released guidelines for the county to receive about $6.2 million more through ERA2. “These guidelines provide minimum quarterly spending benchmarks [for staff to meet],” the memo said.
Chair Alan Maio commended Varnell and the other staff members who have been working with the program. “We all get your frequent emails telling us how many people have been helped,” Maio told Varnell.
“There are people [who] just couldn’t have made their rent payments [without the assistance],” Maio added.
Given the number of people who have called on multiple occasions for various reasons, “who are frightened to death,” Maio continued, addressing Varnell, “I don’t know how you don’t pull your hair out.” Her calmness, he said, “is extremely, extremely important to helping our folks.”
Moreover, Maio referenced what he characterized as “that old saying: Everybody in Sarasota County is wealthy,” and county residents have no children. “Both are preposterous statements.”
The U.S. Treasury Department also has a list of frequently asked questions — with answers — regarding the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Visit this link to read the materials.