Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest extension of the state’s eviction moratorium — this time to Sept. 1 — merely delays an inevitable day of reckoning, according to advocates for both renters and landlords.
When that comes, judges will begin signing stacks of eviction orders, sheriff’s deputies will begin serving notices to vacate, and an alarming number of families will be forcibly removed from their homes with nowhere else to go.
Landlords will see their investments go into default and get repossessed by lenders. Hedge funds will swoop in like vultures, scooping up properties for pennies on the dollar.
The only way to avoid this doomsday scenario, advocates say, is for Congress and the president to approve billions of dollars in assistance — not loans, but grants, much like the forgivable Payment Protection Program loans that have been made available for businesses that promised to keep employees on their payrolls through the first weeks of the shutdown.
Alana Greer, director and co-founder of the Miami-based Community Justice Project, a legal services foundation for low-income residents, calls the prospect of massive evictions a state and national crisis. “I don’t think any of us have our heads wrapped around how bad it’s going to be,” she said. “It’s going to overwhelm the courts, social service organizations and the government at a time these resources are already stretched to the breaking point.”
Massive numbers at risk of eviction
Analyses by the global advisory firm Stout of weekly Household Pulse surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 749,000 million Florida rental households could be at risk of eviction over the next four months if allowed to languish without further eviction moratoriums, extensions of the federal unemployment payment, more stimulus checks or improvements in the jobs market.
Nationwide, 11.7 million households are at risk of eviction, according to the study, which was based on percentages of households that reported either being behind in their payments or expecting to fall behind.
In Lantana, Victoria Alliji has spent the past several months expecting to get evicted. After businesses began reopening in late May, Alliji returned to her jobs as a bartender and as a personal trainer but has been making only a fraction of the income the jobs produced before the shutdown.
She and her roommates have fallen $6,000 behind in their rent despite managing to pay something every week, she said. They’ve received eviction notices in April, May and June. Apartment managers “told me they’re covering their bases” by sending out the notices. “That gives me the impression that once the moratorium is lifted, they’re going to be filing an eviction case against us.”
Eviction cases pile up in courts
Neither the statewide moratorium nor protections enacted by cities, counties and courts are preventing landlords from filing eviction cases in the courts, where they will await further action when the moratorium is finally allowed to expire.
Exactly how many eviction cases have been filed in South Florida courthouses is unknown because clerks of courts’ databases in Broward and Miami-Dade counties prevent free public access to queries by case type.
Palm Beach County’s online case management database, which does make such queries possible, showed 1,106 evictions suits have been filed since March 1 seeking damages up to $15,000. Broward County’s clerk of courts office provided data showing landlords there filed 693 eviction suits seeking damages up to $15,000 in May and June, while Miami-Dade County’s clerk of courts office said 5,869 eviction suits are pending there seeking damages up to $30,000. Statewide, 30,842 such suits are pending, Miami-Dade’s data showed.
The three counties’ data, which does not separate commercial from residential properties, underestimates the number of suits expected to follow expiration of the moratorium because many landlords have interpreted the moratorium as preventing any court filings, advocates say.
“We expect a massive number of cases when and if the moratorium expires,” said Sean Rowley, advocacy director at Legal Services of Greater Miami, which provides free legal assistance to tenants fighting evictions. If called upon to defend any of the 1,600 eviction cases filed since March in Miami-Dade, the agency will argue “that they were filed in violation of the moratorium order and should be dropped and landlords need to start over,” he said.
Eviction laws favor landlords
Still, tenants who will try to fight their evictions face an uphill battle in Florida because eviction laws heavily favor landlords, he said.
When no moratoriums are in place, tenants who are served with eviction suits have five days to file a response stating that they intend to dispute the suit. But to avoid a default ruling from a judge that gives landlords a “writ of possession” that forces tenants to leave, the tenant must deposit with the court the full amount of unpaid rent that the landlord contends is owed.
Because most tenants would have paid that back rent if possible, the requirement typically guarantees landlords win their cases, Rowley said.
$100 billion needed in U.S.
With renters’ debt and eviction filings piling up across the U.S., nothing short of a large federal bailout package for tenants and landlords will end the crisis, says David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose stated goal is “ensuring safe, decent and affordable housing for all.”
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives included $100 billion in emergency rental assistance in its $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package it called the HEROES Act. But in the Republican-controlled Senate, no money was earmarked for rental assistance in a scaled-down $1 trillion bill unveiled this week.
While the GOP Senate bill does extend the moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing units and properties financed by federally backed loans, Dworkin calls evictions moratoriums “a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”
He says Republicans in the Senate “need to stop looking at rental assistance as a Democrat issue and see it as a small-business and constituent issue.”
“The last thing we want to see is tens of thousands of sheriffs’ deputies making evictions at one time. Where would these people go? Most wouldn’t be able to get new housing with evictions on their credit reports. They will end up homeless, end up costing the government more money, and make it harder to get rid of the virus.”
Dworkin says a long list of advocacy groups representing both tenants and rental property owners are urging Congress to approve the $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. They include the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade group representing mid- to large-size apartment complex owners.
“Never before in history have interests of landlords and tenants been this aligned,” he said.
Legitimate need easy to prove
Some South Florida landlords have justified filing eviction suits during the moratorium by pointing to tenants who can afford their rent but have decided not to pay. Yet Mark A. Levy, partner in the South Florida-based firm Brinkley Morgan, who represents several owners of mid-size rental properties, says its impossible to estimate how many past-due renters are exploiting the moratorium.
“All the good landlords and good renters are trying to work together to make things right,” he said. “But if someone hasn’t paid their rent in five months — if they haven’t come to the landlord and said, ‘I’m really trying but here’s $200′ — I’m pretty sure they’re taking advantage.‘”
While scammers exist, that can’t be an excuse not to provide needed relief, Dworkin says. “The only reasonable criteria is whether you’ve lost your job because of COVID. It’s easy to prove.”
In June, Gov. DeSantis released $250 million in pandemic relief funds to help households meet their rent and mortgage obligations. While it’s helped some, it’s not enough money to avoid the eviction crisis that awaits the expiration of the eviction moratorium, Greer says.
Plus, applicants must meet strict eligibility criteria, including a requirement to produce a written lease. That’s a problem because many low-income tenants are on informal month-to-month agreements, Greer says.
Broward County’s Family Success department has fielded 5,000 requests for a share of its $500,000 emergency assistance budget and distributed $356,500 to 115 households, assistant director Natalie Moffitt Beasley said. A majority of callers don’t meet criteria for assistance, she said.
Dworkin says the proposed $100 billion in federal emergency rent assistance should be enough to pay off past-due rent and rent through the end of the year for tenants who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Recipients should not be required to repay the emergency money, he said.
However, the program should not be seen as a cave-in to some activists demanding that the government “cancel rent,” he said.
“Canceling rent is a terrible idea,” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason workers with jobs shouldn’t pay.” Landlords must get paid, he said, so they can maintain their properties and avoid going bankrupt. Large-scale loan defaults would erode safety and sanitation and lead to more multifamily rental properties being taken over by hedge funds, he said.
In addition, “canceling rent is politically impossible,” he added. “It’s not going to happen.”