Emergency Rental Assistance Program set to begin first week of May, with Sarasota County to distribute about $13 million from federal government

Staff encouraging interested persons to sign up online for notifications as launch nears

Image courtesy Sarasota County

Applications for Sarasota County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program are scheduled to open the first week of May, program Manager Laurel Varnell told the county commissioners this week.

Staff is working to launch the program “as fast as physically possible,” she added.

In the meantime, staff has been encouraging interested persons to sign up for notifications through the same Neighborly website portal that the county used for its CARES Act Program last year, she said during an April 21 presentation. “We found [that to be] user-friendly for applicants,” Varnell noted.

Interested persons may visit scgov.net/rent.

The notification form, which was launched on April 7, had 581 submissions as of an hour before her presentation, Varnell noted.

Sarasota County received $13,097,138 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s $25-billion Emergency Rental Assistance program, Varnell pointed out. The funds have been designated to help households that are unable to pay rent and utilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible households may receive up to 12 months of assistance, plus an additional three months of help, if needed to ensure housing stability, as long as funds are available, Varnell said.

“The Department of the Treasury has given us relatively proscriptive eligibility requirements,” she continued. To qualify for the assistance, a household must meet the following three criteria:

  • One or more individuals within the household has qualified for unemployment benefits or experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardships as a result of the pandemic — either directly or indirectly.
  • One or more individuals within the household can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
  • The household has an income at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Based on HUD’s 2021 figures for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area, 80% of AMI for a Sarasota County household with a single person is $43,250, Varnell said. For a family of four, the amount is $61,750.

This chart shows data about the maximum eligible income levels for households. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has given local government bodies “a little bit of flexibility” on some eligibility criteria, she continued. Those allow county leaders to provide assistance to both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents; to use hotels for the relocation of persons until they can obtain permanent housing; and to provide funding to households in which landlords rent out rooms to tenants.

With the CARES Act program, she noted, the commissioners agreed with the first two options. However, she added, staff recommended against allowing persons in room rental situations to be eligible for assistance. The reason, Varnell said, is that it is difficult for such applicants to provide adequate documentation. She characterized the situation as “really tricky.”

Staff’s recommendation on the room rentals issue “is also consistent with [the policies of] some of our neighboring counties,” she noted.

None of the commissioners offered comments on those points.

Additionally, Varnell told the commissioners, people will serve as part-time and full-time ambassadors “located throughout the county” to help individuals sign up for the program. The proposed sites for the ambassadors, she said, are the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library at 2801 Newtown Blvd. in Sarasota, the Fruitville Public Library at 100 Apex Road in Sarasota, Goodwill Manasota’s Selby Newtown facility at 1781 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota, the Laurel Community Center at 509 Collins Road in Laurel, the Englewood CRA office and the  North Port Social Services at 6919 Outreach Way in North Port.

The Fruitville Public Library is on Apex Road. Image from Google Maps

Further, she said, staff will be setting up a dedicated call center, and it is working with a consulting firm that will have representatives assisting with the review of applicants’ documentation, to ensure eligibility criteria are met.

Additionally, she told the board, staff will be working with the Sheriff’s Office to try to prevent fraud, just as staff did in conjunction with the CARES Act program. (See the related article in this issue.)

Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, pointed out that staff members are continuing “to work very closely” with Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing and her team, as well, as Rushing and her staff will be processing the payments. The Clerk of Court’s office handled that facet of the CARES Act program, as well.

Varnell did ask the commissioners on April 20 to approve a resolution that would allow County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to oversee the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, just as Lewis did with the CARES Act initiative.

Laurel Varnell addresses the county commissioners on April 20. News Leader image

That resolution pointed out that “the delegation of authority to the County Administrator or designee on [Emergency Rental Assistance] matters … would allow for the allocation, expenditure and administration of funding in a more expeditious manner … which would be in the best interest of the County …”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger made the motion to approve that resolution, and Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.

“What a great effort,” Cutsinger told Varnell.

“This is a great thing we’re dong,” Detert added. “The trick to its success is to make sure people know about it. I hope we’re doing a great ad campaign …”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred with Detert that staff should take every possible opportunity to spread the news about the rental assistance. “This is a good program that will help a lot of people locally.”