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There’s help avoiding homelessness through Anti Eviction Program in Tampa

The initiative bought some time by finding a month’s rent for Mariangely Torres, a nail technician who took a financial hit because of emergency surgery.
Mariangely Torres, 27, learned about the Eviction Defense Project from a friend and got help with a month's rent on her Brandon mobile home. Torres had been doing well during the pandemic until she underwent emergency surgery in April.
Mariangely Torres, 27, learned about the Eviction Defense Project from a friend and got help with a month's rent on her Brandon mobile home. Torres had been doing well during the pandemic until she underwent emergency surgery in April. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Sep. 3
Updated Sep. 4

TAMPA — Eviction looms during the coronavirus pandemic for a growing number of renters scraping to get by. But that wasn’t Mariangely Torres.

A 27-year-old nail technician in Riverview, Torres saw her hours cut during the pandemic but was soon back to making $1,000 a week and keeping up with bills that included $1,325 a month rent.

Then she learned she had to undergo surgery.

“That was the beginning,” Torres said. “I never thought I was going to end up cornered.”

She needed help paying her rent. She learned about the Eviction Defense Project, a program of the University Area Community Development Corp., United Way Suncoast and Bay Area Legal Services.

The initiative provides timely, reliable information in English and Spanish about renters’ rights and financial aid. The need for its services is growing amid confusion over the pandemic-driven eviction moratorium by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In a ruling Aug. 26, the Supreme Court blocked an extension of the moratorium and allowed evictions to resume across the United States.

One source where the Eviction Defense Project directs people like Torres is the OUR Florida program at OurFlorida.com, available to anyone in the state, and the R3 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The Eviction Defense Project is also sponsoring a community training workshop for landlords and tenants Sept. 17.

“We are in the middle of a housing market where there is not enough inventory, so we want as many families as we can to be able to stay in the properties,” said Sarah Combs, director of the University Area Community Development Corp.

More than 3.5 million people nationwide are at risk of becoming homeless with the end of the eviction moratorium, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures from early August. In Hillsborough County 27,877 households are behind on rent, according to the economic scorecard National Equity Atlas. In Pinellas, the number is 17,408; in Pasco, 7,290; and in Hernando, 2,220.

Black and Hispanic households are twice as likely as white households to be behind on rent and twice as likely to report they’re at risk of eviction, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard Universities.

Help through the Eviction Defense Project is available to anyone, but it’s especially important in the north Tampa region served by the public-private partnership known as the University Area Community Development Corp.

The region is home to some 10,500 people, three out of four of them Hispanic or Black, and nearly nine in 10 homes in the region are rental properties, the development corporation has reported. The region has been labeled in some studies as one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in Florida.

Don’t wait until the last minute to seek help or legal advice to avoid an eviction, said attorney Tom DiFiore with the Bay Area Legal Services housing program.

“It’s important for people to know their options,” DiFiore said.

Torres considers herself lucky to be one of them.

A month ago, she learned about the Eviction Defense Project from a friend. Torres contacted the organizers and in less than 48 hours and she had $1,700 to cover a month’s rent and late fees.

“It was a huge relief because it has allowed me to sort my finances into something,” Torres said. “Little by little, we are advancing.”

Torres underwent emergency gallbladder surgery at the end of April. Her recovery has been painful and slow. She lost her job and was three months behind paying rent on her Brandon mobile home.

Eviction was around the corner.

Torres still is recovering from the surgery and works two full days a week at a nail salon on East Busch Boulevard. She is determined to return to work full time as soon as her health improves.

“I have faith that I will get my finances back,” she said. “It’s not easy. And the bills don’t wait forever.”

To learn more

The University Area Community Development Corp. is hosting a community training workshop for landlords and tenants on renters’ rights and eviction issues 2 p.m. Sept. 17 at the University Area Community Complex (Community Room), 14013 N 22nd St. in Tampa. For questions contact Cynthia Crosby-Craig at (813) 558-5212 x 303