FLORIDA, USA — On any given day, homelessness is a slippery slope for thousands of Floridians, with one setback starting a snowball effect.
But, amidst a pandemic, that slippery slope becomes a steep drop, and experts believe the current state of evictions in Florida could send hundreds-of-thousands of renters over the edge.
A recent study found that of the nearly 3 million Floridians who are renting, more than 20 percent are behind on payments and could possibly be evicted.
At the moment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does have a federal moratorium on evictions, but it hasn’t stopped evictions from being filed. As of March of this year around Tampa Bay, eviction filings have reached pre-pandemic levels, records show.
A total of 1,669 evictions were filed between Dec. 28, 2020, and Feb. 21, 2021, in Hillsborough County alone.
Housing experts say the reason is that the federal moratorium is not as robust as Florida’s own state moratorium, which was lifted back in August.
“You need to be able to document you’ve fallen behind in rent because of something related to COVID, like a job loss…there may be people where the issues are more tenuously related to COVID and so they may not be able to prove that,” said Dr. Elizabeth Strom, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida.
For example, if a single mother was forced to stay home and take care of her children whose school’s campus was closed, it may result in her not being able to work and eventually lead to her falling behind on rent.
During a Florida Senate committee in January, former Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell mentioned that during the summer pandemic months when renters had Florida’s and the federal government’s moratorium to rely on – between March and August – Florida still saw more than 47,000 evictions filed.
That number does not mean thousands of Floridians were evicted during a pandemic, but it has created a backlog in cases that will go to trial once all moratoriums are lifted. And with evictions reaching pre-pandemic levels once again, lawyers and experts say the state could be heading toward a major eviction crisis.
“[The pandemic] certainly has not been kind for those living on the fringe,” said Michael Raposa, chief executive officer with St. Vincent de Paul.
Raposa and St. Vincent have worked to house thousands of individuals in the Tampa Bay area who have been forced into homelessness due to the pandemic. He says he’s seen firsthand how the pandemic has created a new group of people experiencing homelessness.
“The people [who are] usually homeless have experienced generational poverty. But, the pandemic has created a new group of people experiencing homelessness or housing instability for the very first time – it’s situational,” Raposa said.
“First of all, because of the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs. And, second of all, [the jobs] are not the kind that have people returning to work full time,” said Ron Lilliard, a case manager with St. Vincent de Paul.
“That’s created a huge hurdle, especially for people not having the funds available to move into a new unit. To move into a new unit, someone would have to have first month, last month, a deposit, and they don’t have those funds available.”
St. Vincent, and other organizations dealing with housing people during the pandemic, have received federal and local aid, but Raposa says so far, the money has been earmarked for individuals who’ve already gone homeless. There’s been little to no aid in preventing the source of the problem.
Foreclosure attorney Ryan Torrens explains that’s where the roots of an upcoming crisis lie. He says the moratorium the CDC has in place is merely kicking the can down the road.
Without proper relief, Torrens says, those growing backlogged eviction cases will eventually go to court months down the road and by then, the debt many tenants owe their landlords will only grow.
On top of that, Torrens says there’s one very Florida-centric issue. Under Florida law, tenants who are fighting an eviction must put the money they are accused of owing into the courts.
One tenant who already does not have the money to pay their landlord must find enough cash to put into the courts and receive legal representation for a trial Torrens says they’ll most likely lose.
“We’re heading towards a serious crisis,” Torrens said. “Hundreds-of-thousands of tenants who don’t have access to legal counsel will eventually head to court for evictions hearings and most likely be evicted.”
Torrens suggests either temporarily lifting the Florida law, or bringing a mediator from the state’s Supreme Court to negotiate cases between tenants and landlords. Florida does not have the best track record when it comes to protecting renters, but Torrens says there’s no reason for landlords to front the bill.
Property managers MaryAnn Hoffman and Andrew Dougill agree. The two work for Tampa-based Hoffman Realty, which handles the properties of a handful of landlords in the Bay region. They say many landlords are mom and pops who’ve moved out of the area and are using the property as a retirement investment or to pay for their children’s college tuition.
Hoffman and Dougill say they’ve worked to mediate issues between their tenants and landlords and have not faced any issues with evictions. They say relief is out there.
Both Pinellas and Hillsborough County have recently received millions of dollars from the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has disbursed $25 billion nationwide to help those who’ve fallen behind in rent.
Hoffman and Dougill say the issue is knowing what resources are available. However, only 20 percent of Florida landlords have a property manager, according to the two. They cannot speak for the 80 percent of landlords who do not have property managers and most likely do not know what solutions are out there.
Torrens, however, is skeptical about how many tenants' current aid will help. It’s been a year since the pandemic started, meaning many leases are coming to an end.
Strom says that’s what current data is failing to capture: a hidden eviction problem.
Millions of Floridians filed for unemployment at the height of the pandemic, and the state’s economy has yet to fully recover. If tenants fell behind during that period, the gap has likely widened, making it almost impossible for many renters to find new homes.
She and others now fear that once all moratoriums are lifted, it will be an open season for evictions.
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