TAMPA — Christie Brand-Edwards and her husband, Robert Johnson, have for years rented out the one-story house in Tampa that they inherited from his parents.
Both retired and in their 70s, the home brings in some welcome extra income and covers the cost of its homeowners association fees, taxes and sewer bills.
But their tenants stopped paying rent in February. Despite a judge ordering an eviction, the final step of that process — called a writ of possession — has been frozen, caught up in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ moratorium on removing renters for non-payment during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Madeira Beach couple says they understand that renters need help after record job losses caused by the coronavirus. But they argue the governor’s moratorium, which he recently extended until July 1, is too broad.
“It’s another poorly thought-out action for which there are unintended consequences, which no one seems to care about,” Johnson said. “(People assume) you own property, so you must be rich.”
DeSantis ordered the statewide stay on evictions April 2 and has twice extended it. The move was to prevent out-of-work renters from becoming homeless, though his office has stressed that it does not cancel rent obligations altogether for tenants.
Hundreds of eviction cases have stacked up in Florida courts since then, leaving landlords fretting whether they will be able to recover the thousands they are owed from unemployed tenants who may be unable to pay ballooning back payments. Some also fear their tenants are taking advantage.
Rudy Rosario, 40, a resident of the home owned by Brand-Edwards and Johnson, said he intended to pay February’s rent, albeit late. But by the time he scraped the funds together, the pandemic had taken hold of the state, shutting down his work as a house painter and snowballing his debt, he said. The eviction paperwork bears the name of his brother, who he’d been living with before the pandemic began.
“Even if they give us another month I don’t feel right staying here because I know (the landlords) want to rent it out to other people and get their money, too,” Rosario, said. “It’s very stressful.”
In addition to the state-level moratoriums, Congress also established an eviction freeze under the CARES Act, the coronavirus stimulus package, for properties that receive government subsidies or that have federally backed mortgages. But even the Congressional Research Service’s own report acknowledges that “the CARES Act does not address how landlords can respond to missed payments after the moratorium ends.”
The Florida Apartment Association, a group that represents apartment owners and operators across the state, has neither endorsed nor opposed DeSantis’ moratorium.
But leaders of the group have been vocal in calling for alternatives such as making more rental assistance programs like the One Tampa relief fund available to out-of-work renters. Rental assistance is typically paid as vouchers given to tenants or in direct payments to landlords.
“One thing we’ve been saying the entire time is that while these moratoriums are well-intended they’re not the cure for the crisis,” said Amanda Gill, the association’s government affairs director. “They don’t address the underlying symptoms that Florida residents don’t have the financial resources to pay for their basic needs.”
The group would also support more mortgage payment forbearance or grace periods for landlords since revenue from rent is down.
The CARES Act provided forbearance plans for some property owners to delay mortgage payments, but only for those whose loans are federally backed. That leaves a sizable portion of housing stock with little protection from foreclosures if their owners can’t afford mortgage payments.
“We have a broken system right now,” Gill said.
Because large, multifamily apartment buildings are considered commercial real estate rather than residential, there are fewer forbearance options for them. Those that are available through the CARES Act have stricter repayment guidelines. According to a May report, only 4.3 percent of these types of borrowers have taken advantage of the forbearance plans offered by Freddie Mac, a federally chartered but privately run financial institution.
“For single-family properties there’s all these forbearance programs, they’re handing them out like candy,” said Matt Weidner, a St. Petersburg-based real estate lawyer. “Multifamily gets nothing.”
But Robert Stern, a veteran Tampa attorney who co-leads the real estate and lending transactions group at Trenam Law, countered that some of these concerns have been offset by landlords’ ability to get different types of government aid, including paycheck protection loans, or forbearance from local banks that are willing to be more flexible with their borrowers than some larger institutions.
“Before this moratorium, I’d get an angry bank calling me in the morning and want a foreclosure by the afternoon,” he said. “Since I can’t accomplish their goals … it forces banks to talk to borrowers and borrowers to talk to tenants and try to work things out.”
Some nonprofit groups that advocate for tenants are also calling for more rental assistance.
The National Housing Trust, a national nonprofit focused on preserving and expanding access to affordable housing, is supporting legislation to make $100 billion available in rental assistance in the form of vouchers.
While advocating for tenants, the group is also the landlord of more than 4,200 homes across the United States, including some in Florida.
Federal policy director Ellen Lurie Hoffman said without government intervention, a housing crisis is looming.
“As expanded unemployment benefits run out at the end of July and when eviction moratoriums end, many people who have lost jobs will not be able to pay rent and we would have a real crisis both for renters and for owners of these properties,” she said.
Rental assistance is included in the HEROES Act passed in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House. But its companion bill seems unlikely to progress in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We think that’s shortsighted. The need for rental assistance is very clear,” Hoffman said.
Locally, the delinquency rate — the percentage of tenants unable to pay their rent — has risen from about 2 to 4 percent, said David Sigler, the owner of Vintage Real Estate Services, which manages the rental of about 1,000 mostly single-family homes around Tampa Bay.
Still, even that small shift could have a big effect on landlords’ spending on landscaping, pool cleaning and maintenance projects.
“The trickle down of rent not coming in goes deep with the roots of the economy,” he said. “We have hundreds of vendors we deal with in order to maintain thousands of homes.”
Sigler, who is also a member of the National Association of Property Managers, said he’s heard from landlords frustrated with holdovers — tenants who refuse to move out after their lease has expired — and renters who overcrowd homes with more people than they are designed to hold.
While DeSantis’ moratorium only prohibits evictions “solely as it relates to non-payment of rent by residential tenants due to the COVID-19 emergency," the federal CARES Act’s protections apply to evictions for any reason. That law also includes bans on late charges for rent and postings on the property of notices to vacate.
“When you take away that ability to change the situation there is no more leverage,” Sigler said.
Brand-Edwards, the Madeira Beach landlord, said it feels like “we have been dispossessed by the government.” She and her husband haven’t been communicating with Rosario or the tenants listed on the lease because of the ongoing court case.
Rosario said the re-opening of the state has led to new painting jobs. He said he’d be willing to work out a repayment plan, but plans to be out of the Tampa house by July 1 no matter what.
“I don’t want people to think we’re just lounging,” he said. “I’m not (missing rent) on purpose.”
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