Port St. Lucie renters and homeowners hurt by pandemic may see the city help with payments
PORT ST. LUCIE — For some renters and homeowners in Port St. Lucie unable to make their monthly payments because of the coronavirus pandemic, limited help may soon be on the way.
City commissioners on Monday endorsed tapping a pot of affordable housing money and expected federal dollars that could create a fund of nearly $1 million to help qualified residents pay up to two months in rent or mortgage payments.
The Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program, which could begin in the coming days, is designed as a foreclosure and eviction prevention measure to assist people experiencing an economic hardship related to COVID-19.
Mayor Gregory J. Oravec announced he wants the program to launch before May 17, when the state’s moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures ends. Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 2 issued an emergency order that stopped all evictions and mortgage foreclosures from being filed for 45 days.
“This is going to help a lot of people,” Oravec said. “The only problem is we’re not going to be able to help enough people with this, but this is very impactful.”
Carmen A. Capezzuto, the city’s director of neighborhood services, said the program would provide up to 90 Port St. Lucie households with mortgage or rental assistance not to exceed two month’s payments with a maximum of $3,000 per recipient.
Assistance would only be provided for payments due on or after April 1, he noted.
The plan is to use money in the city’s affordable housing fund, called the 128 Fund, which has about $400,000 set aside for payment assistance, land acquisition and construction of affordable housing.
“We’re proposing to begin a rental and mortgage assistance program with guidelines that have been collaborated with St. Lucie County and the city of Fort Pierce,” he said.
It appeared Capezzuto was about to announce that the program, if approved, could begin Monday. But that was before council members peppered him with questions about who will get the funds, how the money will be distributed and how they’ll ensure the program will be fair.
“We know that demand is going to be a lot higher than what we could service with the amount of money that we have” Capezzuto noted. “We’re looking to partner with a not-for-profit agency to help us spend this money – get it to the people, and we look to start that on May 11.”
He recommended launching the program with $270,000 from the city’s affordable housing fund and along with $643,773 coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of community development block grant.
After Capezzuto’s presentation, Vice Mayor Shannon M. Martin said she was concerned about “making sure the people who need it really need it.”
“Going back to the (Payroll Protection Plan) all these businesses got money and they had to get shamed into giving it back,” she said. “So, we need to get close focus on that because if we are giving out funds, we need to make sure it’s going to the right people.”
She warned against getting “bogged down in red tape,” while making sure the people who are helped needed it because of the pandemic.
Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo suggested holding off for now and use the program as a “post-COVID strategy” to help residents.
“Maybe this is something that we do… once the storm has passed of covid, who really needs the funding at that point?” Martin asked. “Who hasn’t gotten help from their mortgage company in three months? Who can we really help?”
Oravec, though, pushed back on Caraballo’s timing suggestion because of the soon-to-end eviction moratorium.
“There’s your crisis. You’re not going to be able to go a month or two after it gets quiet,” he said. “There’s going to be a crisis the second that moratorium is lifted because you’re going to have landlords who’ve been waiting to kick out tenants for nonpayment, because they stopped paying in March.”
After council members all voted to back the program, Oravec instructed City Manager Russ Blackburn to return with answers to a host of questions detailing how the program will roll out.
“The second you are prepared to make a recommendation of approval on program parameters, I will work with the council to call a special meeting,” Oravec said. “We are all understanding that May 17 right now is the end of the moratorium on evictions and there could be just a monumental, crushing demand on that date.”
At Oravec’s suggestion, the council also supported writing a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking that he extend the eviction and foreclosure moratorium. Caraballo suggested they ask other cities to join in the request.
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