A $60.8 million program to cover unpaid rent for Miami-Dade tenants financially hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic is accepting applications from undocumented residents, a county spokesperson confirmed.
Funded through the federal stimulus bill passed in December, the rental assistance program will cover up to 12 months of back rent and, potentially, an additional three months’ worth of future rent, with a cap set at $3,000 per month per household (tenants apply for help, but landlords receive the dollars). Applications for rent relief — which will prioritize low-income households — opened on March 1 and will remain open until March 15.
One piece of ID is required when applying for the program. Among the documentation tenants can show are U.S. government-issued IDs and driver’s licenses as well as foreign passports; noncitizens are eligible for relief whether they are in the country legally or not.
“We are not seeking to ascertain the legal status of applicants,” said Annette Molina, spokesperson for Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development, on Tuesday in an email.. “We are only seeking to verify that the applicants are who they represent to be.”
Undocumented immigrants’ ability to apply for rent relief in Miami-Dade stands in sharp contrast to this group’s sustained exclusion from the rest of the pandemic-era safety net — stimulus checks, food stamps, or temporarily boosted unemployment benefits, for instance, which have helped keep millions of Florida residents afloat during the crisis.
“This inclusion is almost unprecedented,” said Leonie Hermantin, an executive at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center. “I have very seldom in my almost 30 years of community work seen a public program include undocumented beneficiaries. … And the [rent relief] program is fantastic. It pays up to a year in arrears plus three months of future payment. My goodness. This is like Christmas in March.”
But though the rent relief program is technically open to undocumented residents, neither Miami-Dade County’s official communication about the program nor the language of the application itself make that fact explicitly clear.
In the list of required documentation, for instance, the application asks for “your current government issued photo ID for all household members (e.g., driver’s license, passport, birth certificate)” with no direct mention of foreign passports.
In addition, the paper version of the application form asks for applicants’ Social Security number, even though that information is not required, as Molina confirmed to the Herald. Local immigrant-advocacy groups are now trying to inform the community about what the requirements actually are.
“As an organization, we have been fighting for an equitable recovery for all, and we commend our local government for taking steps to make that a reality,” said Oscar Londoño, executive director of WeCount!, a South Dade immigrant workers’ center. But the rent relief program is “not broadcast as being open to undocumented immigrants, and the application materials and form deter certain undocumented immigrants from applying.”
To make sure as many eligible households as possible in South Dade apply to the program, WeCount! is providing its members both virtual and in-person assistance with verifying eligibility, compiling documents, and submitting applications before the March 15 deadline.
There are additional hurdles that could restrict access to rent relief by undocumented residents. Some lack government-issued photo IDs of any kind, for instance — whether issued by the United States or another country.
Also, the program’s requirement that applicants submit a lease document blocks those in informal living arrangements.
“In our community the relationships are a little different. You do have people with yearly leases, but you also have a lot of people who are engaging in more informal housing arrangements, where I’ll rent a room in your house and pay with cash, or with a money order. … We have clients who have children and who live in a room in somebody’s house,” Hermantin said. “So unless the county understands and makes accommodations for those types of informal landlord-tenant relationships, you have a whole group of people that are left out.”
Underscoring the boon that rent assistance could represent for undocumented communities is the fact that economic fallout from the pandemic has hit immigrant communities and people of color the hardest.
“Across the board, our members, those with papers and without, are facing an unprecedented housing crisis,” Londoño said. “Without rent relief, most of them are on the precipice of mass evictions.”
A federal eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains in place through March, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava continues to bar county police from evicting people in 2020 proceedings tied to back rent.
Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks contributed information to this report.