In April, Sarasota County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program reached the benchmark of $10 million disbursed to families in need. The program will continue until all available funds have been disbursed.
The rental assistance fund was launched on May 5, 2021, after an infusion of money was received from the U.S. Department of Treasury during the pandemic. The program has averaged about $250,000 disbursed each week since.
“The $10 million is incredible in itself, but there’s other markers of success outside of that,” said Laurel Varnell, the rental assistance program manager for Sarasota County. “The months of assistance have been a big marker because it shows how many applicants have been able to stay in their homes and how long they’ve been able to do so.”
As of April 21, the program has paid more than 7,750 months of rent and more than 3,000 monthly utility bills for 879 Sarasota County households. Sarasota County received a second round of funding in January through the American Rescue Plan Act which is expected to extend the rental and utilities assistance until 2025.
Since the program started, it has required collaboration within county departments, but also included work between the county and the city of Sarasota. Processing applications has been a time-consuming process that Varnell said she has been glad multiple people have worked on.
“The relationship between us and our clerk and comptroller’s office has been great,” Varnell said. “They’ve been able to really help us out, you know, processing checks and it makes it possible for us to cut those checks pretty quickly. We really appreciate their collaboration.”
Earlier in April, the Sarasota City Commission discussed an annual evaluation of city staff positions which included acknowledgement of some of the city’s successes in 2021. Among those successes was the work done on the rental assistance program.
For Varnell though, she said the greatest recognition she has received has been seeing the families who have benefited from the program.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is seeing all these families being able to stay in their homes,” Varnell said. “Just being able to see the families not have to worry about where they are going to live has been very exciting for me to see.”
Applications can still be received for assistance, and requirements have been broadened regarding the definition of COVID-19 impact, according to the Sarasota County, though rental fees for people living in recreational vehicles and motel rooms without a formal lease arrangement remain ineligible for assistance.
Applications are submitted, reviewed and communicated upon online. All resources needed to complete the application are also available online, but ERAP ambassadors also offer in-person assistance with the application.