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Massive federal rent assistance contract could become political minefield for DeSantis

by | Mar 25, 2021


In January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis confirmed that the state would participate in a federally funded, $1.4 billion rental assistance program signed into law by President Donald Trump to assist households that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By extension, the funding will also help long-term rental property owners remain in business.

About $850 million dollars will be administered directly by the DeSantis Administration, which is in the midst of evaluating a vendor to promote and run the program. A number of companies are believed to have submitted proposals to the DeSantis Administration by last Monday’s March 22nd deadline, including one that is already embroiled in controversy over its botched role administering the same program in Texas.

Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has been tasked with selecting the vendor for the program. In early March, The Capitolist confirmed through multiple sources that the agency sent out a “request for quote” (RFQ) to a limited number of firms, asking them to submit a quote for the cost to “provide all needed supporting systems and activities for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program” through the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD).

With a March 31st target date for DCF to identify the winning vendor, the agency appears to be moving quickly to set up the program. Speed is important, because the federal government can impose steep financial penalties if DCF fails to meet certain deadlines.

But DCF also needs to avoid moving too quickly to avoid running into the same kinds of problems Florida experienced when the state unemployment system crashed under heavy demand last year. To that end, it appears DeSantis intends to avoid a “Deloitte 2.0 fiasco,” as one observer noted, a reference to the vendor that built the state’s faulty unemployment system.

DeSantis is likely also eager to avoid the serious problems experienced by Texas, which moved so rapidly to launch its version of the federally-funded rent assistance program in mid-February, that is has been plagued by major technical glitches that have caused an uproar in the Lone Star State. The Texas program, run by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, received $1.3 billion from the federal government. Those dollars were supposed to be administered by the vendor hired by Texas, Horne LLP. But as of early this week, Horne has only managed to successfully process and approve about 134 applicants on behalf of the state out of more than 170,000 who have applied for relief. By contrast, a similar program run by the City of Houston and Harris County had already approved 4,151 applicants.

The Capitolist has confirmed that Horne, LLP was one of the companies invited to bid for the contract by Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

But the similarities between the Texas rental assistance program awarded to Horne, LLP and Florida’s unemployment system fiasco, which was built by Deloitte, may prove too great for the DeSantis Administration to ignore. For starters, the problems plaguing Horne in Texas aren’t the company’s only recent public failures.

In West Virginia in 2018, Horne was hired to help administer a flood relief program to reconstruct homes that were lost in the flooding. But West Virginia officials grew concerned after the initial $900,000 contract with Horne ballooned to an estimated $17 million. A series of audits and official inquiries stalled the relief program for months, causing embarrassing delays and forcing homeless families to wait while the details were sorted out. That scandal ultimately resulted in West Virginia Governor Jim Justice firing the state’s Commerce Secretary. Horne was ultimately paid more than $6 million dollars for their work overseeing the state’s long-term flood relief. But after more than two years, an audit found that the program only resulted in the construction of 38 homes.

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