Miami Beach finds funds for rent, food assistance — but much more is needed
While the city can feed up to 600 families per week, there is currently only enough funding allocated to help 96 households pay their rent
The Miami Herald
By Martin Vassolo
MIAMI BEACH — Bread lines have replaced club lines in Miami Beach, as the city's hospitality economy has withered under two months of coronavirus closures.
Sectors of the economy, starting with retail stores and grooming services, are reopening this week, soon followed by restaurants. But in the meantime, a growing number of the city's 92,000 residents remain financially insecure.
Last week, the City Commission approved the use of $549,111 in federal and state funds to help renters pay their landlords. The city has also ramped up feeding efforts by pledging about $175,000 per month in general fund money to feed up to 600 families a week in walk-up food distributions.
It's been alarming how many people are lining up in cars waiting for food," said Commissioner Michael Góngora, who sponsored both resolutions. "In my opinion, it's a start. We don't know how many people will be applying."
The city plans to request a reimbursement for its feeding program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some of Miami-Dade's biggest cities, including Miami and Hialeah, have allocated millions in federal grant money to help business owners and tenants.
In North Miami, the city's special tax district has earmarked $1 million in property taxes for rental assistance and $600,000 for small business aid.
Miami Beach, which has about 30,000 more residents than North Miami, has a smaller tax district created to build up commerce around the city's convention center.
To meet the "incredible demand for food and rent," Mayor Dan Gelber said the city needs to find other pools of money.
This is an ongoing commitment," he said. "We have to find funds that we can responsibly program toward rent or food."
$1 million in resort taxes help cultural 'anchors'
To help keep the lights on at Miami Beach's cultural organizations, like New World Symphony and the Miami City Ballet, the city launched a $1 million relief fund using previously earmarked resort tax money.
The Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council, which for the last 19 years has received a sliver of the city's resort taxes, received approval from the City Commission this month to use $1 million of the council's $4 million emergency reserves for a coronavirus relief fund.
Since 2001, the council has received a tenth of 1 percent of the city's annual resort tax totals, which reached $88 million in 2019.
The commission has the authority to dip into the council's tax-funded reserves — to fund rental assistance, for instance — but Gelber said the city's tax base relies in part on its cultural offerings.
"We give them a certain amount of money, and they spend it or carry it over," he said. "When we saw the reserve, the commission could have simply taken it or swept it away.
The $4 million is "unspent money that they use as a reserve for their challenging times."
He added: "These are clearly hard times, but you can't simply abandon your cultural institutions because often they don't come back," he said. "They struggle in the best of times, and they are vital to our community's profile and economic viability."
He said city staff is poring over ledgers to find other pots of money to fund rental and food assistance. The city, which has furloughed 35 full-time employees and released 258 part-time workers, has reassigned others to operate a resource center at City Hall to help residents access unemployment benefits.
It's estimated that the economic downturn has cost the city $3.5 million a week.
Property and resort taxes, along with parking revenues, make up the majority of Miami Beach's $669 million operating budget, with property taxes accounting for 28 percent, resort taxes 14 percent and parking 8 percent of the 2020 budget.
"We've got to be mindful that we're furloughing our own employees and losing $3.5 million a week on top of that," he said. "It's not exactly easy to discover available funds. I think we will."
Funds can help 100 renters
Just 56 percent, or $308,611, of the money set aside for rental assistance will be immediately available, according to a city memo. The remaining $240,500 will become available after Oct. 1.
Fewer than 100 households, estimated to be between 93 and 96, will be able to take advantage of the rental assistance before the money runs out, a city spokeswoman said.
Depending on the program a renter qualifies for, the money will cover three to six months of rent. For now, however, the city will provide only enough money to help tenants with overdue rent. The average monthly rent payment in the city is $1,600, a spokeswoman said.
To apply for rental assistance, you must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or have legal immigration status and your household must earn no more than 80 percent of area median income, which was $47,450 in 2019 for a family of one in Miami-Dade County.
Interested residents may call the Office of Housing and Community Services at 305-673-7491 to schedule an appointment.
Only Miami Beach residents can apply. Applicants must have a notice from an employer stating that their work hours or employment status has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To sign up for food assistance, fill out the form at miamibeachfl.gov/food. The city will contact eligible residents with a date, time and location for food pickup. Households are allowed to pick up food once per week.
The distributions, which have begun, take place at the North Shore Youth Center and the Police Athletic Building.
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