ST. PETERSBURG (AP)

As the landlord of more than 500 affordable housing units occupied by low-income families, staffers at Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida have seen firsthand how the pandemic has hit working families.

About 20% of its tenants are behind on rent because they have lost either work or hours since March. Many of them worked in the hospitality industry, including as cooks and food servers.

Concerned that rent arrears were piling up, the nonprofit has come up with a way for its residents to volunteer their way out of debt.

The nonprofit introduced a “Back on Track” program that forgives $100 of overdue rent for every hour a tenant volunteers for a recognized nonprofit charity. The offer applies only to renters who have lost income because of the pandemic.

“To be honest, it’s probably money we wouldn’t get anyway, but it gives them some pride and a feeling they’re doing something,” said Joseph Lettelleir, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “Bottom line, they’re good tenants, and we’d like to keep them.”

The idea for the program came from Holly Butler, the group’s director of property management, who described it as a lemonade-out-of-lemons moment.

“I thought it might be a kookie idea, but I pitched it,” she said.

More than two dozen residents have participated in the program, volunteering at food banks, cleaning up a trailer park and removing trash along the shorelines with Tampa Bay Watch. At another organized event, volunteers collected more than 400 pounds of trash from nearby neighborhoods.

At Hope Villages of America, which was known as Religious Community Services Pinellas until October, volunteers sorted, packed and labeled food headed for a food pantry. Chief Operating Officer Melinda Perry said her group was pleased to benefit from a program that also helps those volunteering.

“We’ve had almost 20 residents volunteer at our food distribution center, and they provided nearly 150 volunteer hours processing food donations and assisting with food distribution,” Perry said. “Their efforts meant that we could meet individuals’ and families’ needs for nutritious food.”

Established in 1992, Contemporary Housing runs 14 properties, mostly in the Pinellas Park and Lealman area. To qualify to live there, residents must make no more than about 80 percent of the area median income. The nonprofit also has housing that is designated for families whose income falls below 60 percent of the region’s household average.

Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $700 a month.

When the pandemic’s impact on the economy first became apparent, the group stressed to tenants that it was critical to let their landlords know if they were having difficulty. In April, it gave everyone who paid their rent on time a $25 grocery store gift card as appreciation.

For those who have struggled, the nonprofit has agreed to payment plans to give tenants more time and suspended late fees. It also helped them connect with rent-assistance programs, including Pinellas CARES, a financial-assistance program funded through federal stimulus money, and 211 Tampa Bay Cares. Both programs are no longer accepting applications, according to their websites.

Despite many tenants qualifying for assistance, Contemporary Housing’s rent revenue is down about $300,000 this year, said Lettelleir.

The economic downturn has made eviction or foreclosure a constant worry for millions. Nationwide, almost 8% of Americans reported being behind on rent or mortgage payments or have little confidence that their household can make the next payment, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey.

Lettelleir hopes that other landlords of affordable housing will adopt a similar rent forgiveness program to give their tenants a chance to try and get back on their feet.

“It takes a group that is really struggling and offers them an opportunity to hold up their head and do something for the community,” he said.



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