Thousands waiting for help from Jacksonville’s rent and utility assistance program

Case workers with the United Way say they are processing hundreds of pages of paperwork per family to get them the assistance they need.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Months after the city of Jacksonville received $29 million to help Duval County tenants pay rent and utilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands are still waiting for their applications to be processed and approved.

United Way of Northeast Florida was tasked with distributing the lion’s share of the federal money -- $23 million -- to those who need help paying months’ worth of back rent. So far, the organization has paid out more than $1 million to close to 300 families.

Now, with federal eviction protections expiring at the end of this month, more than 2,600 applications for rental assistance are still pending or under review by United Way of Northeast Florida. The wait time is roughly 44 days from application to receipt of funds, according to the city of Jacksonville.

It leaves roughly $19.8 million dollars left to pay out.

Jeff Winkler, head of basic needs at United Way of Northeast Florida, said that just in the two-week application period, the program saw more than 6,800 applications submitted. The agency closed the application process to go through the thousands of submitted cases.

“We’re dealing with an incredibly high demand right now, so we are adjusting as best we can,” said Winkler. “We understand the urgency and stress many of the tenants are under right now. We are working to get these payments out the door as quickly as possible. But we also have to really balance that with the regulations and requirements of the program.”

The funding available under the program is being used to make direct payments to landlords and JEA on behalf of tenants. People who are applying must prove that they qualified for unemployment benefits or that they experienced a reduction in household income or experienced other financial hardship due to COVID-19.

The application period for the city of Jacksonville’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is closed now, and no new applications are being accepted. The applications that are in progress and not submitted will be saved but will not be processed at this time, according to the United Way of Northeast Florida.

“It’s unfortunate,” Winkler said. “But we know that not everybody is going to get the help that they need in time. There’s just simply too many applicants for us to process at one time.”

Winkler said that in one case, there were more than 100 records uploaded to a single application for assistance. He said that in many cases, workers must make repeated inquiries to applicants to address gaps in information.

Travis Sapp is one of the thousands in Duval County waiting for financial assistance. Sapp, who is married and has three children, said he struggled financially before the pandemic. But once COVID-19 made its way to Florida, Sapp said, he stopped driving for Uber and Lyft. During the pandemic, he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19.

“I am trying to jump back into it and find something I can do from home,” said Sapp. “I have high blood pressure, diabetes, herniated discs, pinched nerves in my back after I stand up for five minutes. It is not like I am in my teens and early 20s and I am in perfect health because I am not anymore.”

Sapp and his family are currently facing eviction. He is thousands of dollars behind on rent. In April, when he heard about the city’s rent and utility relief program, he applied right away.

“I was thinking, ‘Yay -- some relief,’” said Sapp.

But, since then, Sapp said, he, like many others, has been in pending status. Meanwhile, a three-day notice of eviction was posted to his family’s door.

“Right now, we are in limbo. It doesn’t seem there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sapp. “Worst case scenario: I would have to see if I could live with one of my relatives.”

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.