An Update on Housing Transition for Evacuees from Puerto Rico

From Orange County Commissioner Rod Love

At the May 8th, 2018 meeting of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, the Board heard a multi-part presentation on housing transition barriers for evacuees from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. This presentation addressed questions and issues raised by some of the Puerto Rican evacuees during public comment at the April 24th, 2018 Board meeting.

At the April 24thmeeting, four housing transition barriers were mentioned: Extending Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance for Hurricane Maria Evacuees in Central Florida; a need for the Bill of Rights for tenants to be printed in Spanish; a request for protective class status for Section 8 Housing; and the need for the development of a centralized location/system for landlords and tenants (concerns with the application process and searching for apartments) and non-refundable application fee requirements. Following this meeting, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs sent a letter on behalf of the Board to FEMA supporting a continuation of Hurricane Maria Disaster Assistance for displaced Puerto Rican families and individuals now living in the Central Florida Region. Subsequently, this request was granted and the assistance period was extended to June 30th, 2018, providing relief to the first barrier mentioned.

District 2 Orange County Commissioner Rod Love

The State of Florida puts out a summary of the landlord-tenant law in a brochure that covers the rights of the tenants and the responsibilities of the landlord. 200-300 of these brochures are currently being printed in Spanish to distribute to evacuees residing in hotels and motels. This document acts as a resource that summarizes state law regarding tenants’ rights and landlords’ responsibilities and rights.

According to Housing and Community Development staff, the protective class status for the Section 8 Housing barrier posed a two-part question/issue: Reports of discrimination from evacuees; and a request for a protective class for Section 8 Housing to prevent discrimination. Staff assisted 62 families from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that came to Orange County with their voucher; these families could go to either the Orlando Housing Authority or Orange County’s Public Housing Agency. Although there are two housing agencies that share the same territory, evacuees with vouchers for the Orlando Housing Authority may use their vouchers for housing in Orange County, vice versa. Of the 62 families, 47 have signed a lease with an apartment, and 15 are still currently searching for housing; it was reported that 60 days is the average amount of time it takes for families to find an apartment. Orlando assisted 77 families with vouchers, with 32 having signed a lease and 45 still searching. Staff did note that families are still arriving and that the vouchers are portable, where they can be used anywhere in the United States. To help facilitate this process when Puerto Rico was without power, the federal government confirmed vouchers with Orange County so that evacuees could be assisted. There are 2,100 Section 8 vouchers in the Orange County Housing Development Office, with no reports of discrimination in terms of housing; the majority of reports made are concerning landlord-tenant disputes. Orange County has 115 apartment complexes that will accept Section 8 vouchers (8-10,000 apartment units). This list is distributed in hotels and motels where evacuees are residing. Upon coming to Orange County’s Housing Office with their voucher, evacuees are required to go through a couple hours of training on Orange County’s Program and its terms, which includes filling out extra paperwork, going to a class, and allowing for staff to inspect their house every year. On the other hand, evacuees are also free to find any housing on the market if they choose not to use their voucher.

Orange County Family Services staff did reach out to a number of landlords to find out what their application processes are. Staff found that all do charge application fees. Some of the challenges presented in implementing a centralized location/system for landlords and tenants is that in attempting to pull a credit check for a potential tenant, different landlords have different levels of background screening, criteria, and some pay third parties to run the credit check as well as advise them on how to proceed with the application. A major issue presented to tenants with this system is privacy, where the system would store credit and background history (including criminal), and personal information (social security, driver license, etc.). Other issues presented by staff were determining the legitimacy of landlords in granting access to the system, time sensitivity in completing credit checks, and designating a person to be responsible for and to manage the system. Based on the issues presented, staff concluded that the development of a centralized location/system for landlords and tenants would not be a feasible option for most landlords.

In terms of non-refundable application fee requirements, staff found that landlords have different requirements for their application fees. Landlords charge application fees to run credit checks and do accept more than one application for units in the event that the first applicant does not qualify. Some landlords try to review applications for potential disqualifications and convey their requirements to potential tenants so that they may decide whether they want to pay the application fee. FloridaHousingSearch.org is a statewide resource that can be utilized to search apartments with specific criteria (number of bathrooms, etc.), and then find more information on apartments (contact information, application fees, availability, etc.). United Way along with other organizations are providing assistance with first month’s rent and deposits, and other organizations, such as Mustard Seed, are providing assistance to help with payments for furniture.

Residents who wish to view the full BCC presentation from the May 8th, 2018 Board meeting may do so here: http://netapps.ocfl.net/Mod/meetings/1.

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