$13 million in federal emergency rental assistance to be available to Sarasota County households affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Individuals encouraged to sign up with the county so they will be notified when the application period begins

Image courtesy Sarasota County

This spring, $13 million from the federal government will be available to Sarasota County residents who need help paying for rent and utilities because they lost income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the county commissioners this week.

An April 7 news release issued by the county noted that anyone interested in receiving aid through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program may sign up to be notified when the application portal opens. Those who fill out the form also will receive any updates on the initiative, the release adds.

The notification form “is not an application for the Emergency Rental Assistance program,” the release stresses

After the facets of the program have been finalized, the release points out, “details will be announced.”

An April 7 county memo explains that the federal program is expected to go live before May 1.

The county webpage dedicated to the new initiative — www.scgov.net/rent — explains that the county is a recipient of the funds from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Treasury website explains that the program will make $25 billion available directly to states, U.S. territories, local governments and Indian tribes

“Eligible households may receive up to 12 months of assistance, plus an additional three months if the [county] determines the extra months are needed to ensure housing stability and … funds are available,” the county webpage points out. “Households may reapply for additional assistance at the end of the three-month period if needed and the overall time limit for assistance is not exceeded.”

The webpage further notes that priority will be given to households with income below 50% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and to households in which one or more people are unemployed or have not been employed for the 90 days prior to submission of an application for assistance.

This is a chart on the county webpage that shows income eligibility for the program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The 2021 AMI for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area is $77,200, HUD has determined. For a family of four, 50% of AMI — which is characterized as “Very Low” — would be $38,600. For the same size family, 80% of AMI would be $61,750.

In 2020, the AMI for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area was $76,700.

This is the 2021 AMI chart produced by HUD. Image courtesy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The rental assistance “should not be duplicative of any other federally funded rental assistance” provided to a household, the county webpage adds.

In an April 7 memo to County Administrator Lewis, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson noted that the county received the federal dollars in January. Through Feb. 26, Johnson added, county staff “continued to distribute the remainder of the $7.3 million in Individual Assistance funding provided through the [federal] CARES Act.”

Further, Johnson wrote, during their regular meeting on Feb. 9, the county commissioners voted unanimously to authorize Chair Alan Maio to send a letter to Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody, requesting that the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) administer the Emergency Rental Assistance program. “This request is in accordance with the Interlocal Agreement between Sarasota County and the City,” Johnson explained.

However, on March 11, Johnson noted, the county received a response from Brody, saying that the OHCD “‘would not be able to handle the monumental task of administering this Rental Assistance Program while fulfilling its Federal and State requirements and obligations.’”

City leaders cited “staffing and workload issues as the main reasons they could not fulfill the County’s request,” Johnson added. However, city leaders did offer to provide other city staff and resources “to assist in distributing the funds,” Johnson wrote.

County Administrator Lewis referenced that letter in his comments to the county commissioners on April 6, summing it up by saying that “[It] just hasn’t worked out for [the OHCD] to run [the rental assistance program] for us.” Therefore, Lewis continued, county staff would be working with the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller to assist with the funds distribution.

Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing. Image from the Clerk’s Office website

Clerk of Court Karen Rushing and her staff also spent long hours helping with the distribution of the federal CARES Act funding the county received last year, after the commissioners approved how the approximately $75 million should be apportioned.

Johnson further noted in his April 7 memo that county staff “has worked to secure services to administer the [rental assistance program] from application intake to payment processing.”

Among those steps, he reported that staff was working with the county Procurement Department “to secure call center services” with the same company that provided such help with the CARES Act funding initiative. Additionally, Johnson wrote, a county staff member would be appointed to serve as the manager of the program. Finally, he added, “Staff is working with the municipalities within the County to provide locations and potentially staff to assist residents with the application process.”

In an April 7 video produced by the county Communications Department staff, Emergency Services Department Director Rich Collins pointed out that such ambassadors were stationed at county libraries to aid persons with the CARES Act funding applications. The forms persons are being asked to fill out for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Collins added, will help guide staff in determining the best locations for ambassadors in this situation.

Johnson also referenced that issue in his memo, explaining that the information from people signing up for notifications will help staff “gauge interest [in the program] throughout the County and to make determinations on staffing levels for ambassadors in different regions of the County.”

Additionally, on April 20, staff is scheduled to provide a full overview of the rental assistance program to the County Commission, Johnson wrote.

At that time, he continued, the board members would be asked to provide policy direction and authorize County Administrator Lewis to oversee the program, including the ability to enter into contracts as necessary.