With no moratorium in place for FL renters, ‘We expect a tsunami of evictions’

By: - August 19, 2020 7:00 am

Unemployment during the pandemic created an affordable-housing crisis recently worsened by surging rental prices. Credit: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Facebook

More than 800,000 renters in Florida are at risk of being evicted within weeks, a fallout framed by financial duress, the coronavirus crisis and little help from state and federal officials, according to lawyers and legal aid groups.

With Florida’s limited state order on evictions expiring Aug. 31, those renters could be without homes if they don’t catch up on missed payments or reach agreements with their landlords or the courts, according to Jim Kowalski, president and CEO of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

Florida has 2.7 million rental units, according to U.S. Census data from 2018, and a great many “are at risk of eviction right now,” Kowalski said in a Florida Bar Foundation teleconference last week. “There is no functioning eviction moratorium in Florida as of August 1.”

Instead, Florida’s executive order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis for the month of August blocks evictions only for renters who can convince a judge — on very short notice — that they continue to be adversely impacted by COVID-19, as in losing a vital job or one’s business through no fault of his or her own. Previous orders blocking evictions applied more broadly.

That’s bad news for people who cannot prove a direct hardship because of coronavirus, and for people who fail to quickly respond to eviction complaints, even if their evidence of hardship is in order.

Attorney Diana Chestnut, with Legal Services of North Florida, talks about one North Florida healthcare worker behind on rent, with work hours cut back but not enough to qualify for unemployment, bills in arrears and an eviction complaint from the landlord.

“It’s affecting people from every walk of life. We expect a tsunami of evictions. We expect the homeless problem to be totally out of hand,” Chestnut said.

What to do next?

Chestnut’s client has proof of partially lost wages because of the pandemic, which may persuade the local judge to block the landlord’s eviction proceedings for as long as the client can work only part-time.

But it’s not a certainty because judges across the state have no statewide guidance and may interpret the governor’s order on evictions in different ways, Chestnut said.

One of the most useful things lawmakers could do, Chestnut said, is to provide relief to landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own mortgages. That could relieve the pressure on landlords to evict people unable to pay due to no fault of their own, she said.

What would also help? Congress could restore a federal unemployment supplement for jobless people who can use the funds to pay for their housing and other essentials.

The federal unemployment supplement of $600 weekly — on top of the regular state benefit — ended in July, leaving Florida with a low-level $275 per week state unemployment benefit. President Donald Trump issued an order to provide at least a $300 federal supplement but so far Florida has not applied.

Trump’s executive order on evictions, announced recently, does not block evictions, attorneys said.

“It has no effect on what’s going to happen with your eviction,” said Kowalski, of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

“It does nothing,” said Sean Rowley, director of the tenants rights unit of Legal Services of Greater Miami.

“Don’t ignore the paperwork”

Kowalski said come Sept. 1, the backlog of postponed eviction complaints in Florida will activate, with tenants having just three days to pay up or face a formal eviction order.

Tenants have five days from being served with an eviction notice to respond in court with a valid defense, or they will be evicted. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid developed this tool specifically to help tenants respond right away  to such notices.

“These are in the hopper. They’re ready to go,” said Jay Mobley, senior housing and consumer attorney with Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association. “Don’t ignore the paperwork. Respond to it immediately. Know that you’re on a five-day clock.”

Stephanie Johnson, senior attorney for Legal Services of North Florida, said roughly 850,000 people in Florida are at risk of being evicted within weeks and should immediately seek legal help.

“They won’t be kicked to the curb until the end of August … You don’t want these families in the streets,” she said.

Typically, the delinquent tenant is required to submit the overdue rent funds to the clerk of court in order to occupy the home while courts decide if the debt is valid – a practice called “registry” or “pay to play.”

For tenants left jobless for months during the pandemic, it may be hard to come up with those funds, the attorneys said. So, they say it is crucial for a tenant to file “a motion to determine rent” in order to avoid the pay-to-play requirement while disputing eviction proceedings under a COVID-19 hardship defense. That protection was instituted in DeSantis’ latest executive order on evictions.

Responding right away to an eviction complaint will be absolutely critical, the lawyers agreed.

“Immediately start gathering your documents. Five days is not a lot of time to respond,” attorney Mobley advised.  “You will not be evicted as long as a judge determines you are adversely impacted.“

Otherwise, he said, “Landlords have to be compensated. It’s a valid debt.”

Landlords who cut off delinquent tenants’ utilities or lock them out of their housing — practices referred to as landlord “self help” — are illegal but are occurring already, said lawyer Kowalski and others.

CARES funding

The federal CARES Act that blocked evictions from properties backed by federal funding will offer protection a little while longer, though it expired July 25. The act requires landlords to provide 30-day notices before starting evictions of tenants that were protected by it. The act also prohibits landlords from charging late fees.

The attorneys said individual counties, including metro Miami-Dade and Orange counties, can provide some financial assistance with overdue rent and mortgage payments.

DeSantis earmarked $250 million of Florida’s CARES funding for rental and mortgage assistance, with $120 million provided to the Florida Housing Finance Corp., of which $75 million is to be distributed locally by these cities and counties, as the governor announced on June 17.

Jobless tenants who did not pay rent but received state and federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic likely will not be protected from eviction, Chestnut and Mobley predicted.

The attorneys all cautioned that judges throughout the state will interpret the various executive orders and laws cases by case, meaning there is no sure way to predict outcomes.

The attorneys pointed to these as initial resources for tenants at risk of being evicted: call 2-1-1 (United Way of Florida), contact Legal Services or Legal Aid organizations in your region, hire private legal counsel, and/or contact Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.