Jacinta Evans felt like she was hitting her stride this spring. After moving out of a homeless shelter late last year, she signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment with her son in Clearwater. Her temp work at a warehouse was going well and she hoped she’d soon be hired full-time.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived.
Work dried up and she missed two months of rent. Her landlord filed for eviction in June.
She recently got a job at a fish processing plant in St. Petersburg, and the combination of her new paycheck and some aid from Pinellas county’s rent and utility relief program has helped her start to “climb out of the hole,” said Evans, 47. She’s done the math: If she puts in overtime, she’ll be able to pay back the rest of her rent in a few weeks.
But it hasn’t all gone smoothly. She came home Monday to find her water turned off, which she hopes is the result of an administrative error.
"I keep falling and then it's like I've just got to get up and get stable," Evans said.
Florida’s eviction moratorium was yet again approaching an expiration deadline of 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the moratorium via an order issued Wednesday night, despite being mum on his intentions in the days before. The extension also made some changes to the moratorium, such as explicitly requiring tenants to begin repaying their missed rent when they are “no longer adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency,” which the order defines as having experienced job loss or other income reduction directly attributable to the pandemic.
But in the time since evictions have been frozen, some housing advocates and officials have proposed doing more to help tenants like Evans, beyond simply delaying the rising logjam of evictions.
"Getting to a place where we can help folks rebound to place of better income security, we know that has demonstrable benefits to their health and well-being," said Cortney Nicolato, the CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, which is administering a program there that helps tenants renegotiate payment plans with their landlords.
The following is an analysis of three ideas being discussed by policymakers in Florida and elsewhere to go beyond the eviction moratorium and ease the pressure on tenants, landlords and the court system:
‘Safe Harbor’ in Rhode Island
Proposal creator: Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, administered by the charity United Way
Benefits: The “Safe Harbor” program uses Rhode Island’s chunk of federal money from the CARES Act to help tenants and landlords avoid eviction and make up for lost revenue. While the state’s eviction moratorium expired in June, this program helps qualifying tenants (they must be lower-income and have been hit financially by the pandemic) pay up to six months’ worth of missed rent. Landlords may also apply on behalf of their tenants.
To receive the assistance, the tenants and landlords must renegotiate a new payment plan to avoid an eviction in the future but ensure the landlord is made whole. Representatives from the United Way may mediate those negotiations in an effort to keep them out of the court system.
“We know the number of (eviction) incidents on a person’s record can affect their ability to get housing in the future,” said Kyle Bennett, director of policy and research at the United Way of Rhode Island. “We would like this to happen in a way that leaves both parties unharmed ... and also benefits district courts and reduces their caseload.”
For those tenants who are already facing an eviction filing in court, the Safe Harbor program can also pay for a lawyer to represent them. One report by a professor at the New England School of Law in Boston estimated that in some courts, as many as 90 percent of landlords have lawyers for eviction cases, while about 10 percent of tenants do.
"When you have a professional trained in the field of navigating the legal system on one side of the case, and someone whose very first interaction with the legal system is when their home at stake ... chances are the system bends toward the professional," Bennett said.
Drawbacks: The six months’ worth of debt wiped out by this program is a larger sum of money than some other programs and paying for lawyers adds to the cost.
While the larger sum makes the program a lifesaver to those who receive it, it also cuts down on the number of people who will be helped. The United Way acknowledged they don’t expect to be able to provide help to all who need it.
"When we say six months (of unpaid rent), we're talking about folks in dire situations before COVID happened," Nicolato, the CEO, said. "Our goal is to support as many Rhode Islanders as we can, but we know some folks are struggling more than others so we have to strike the balance between the two."
Can it work in Florida? While the nation’s smallest state may face fewer logistical hurdles than a major population hub like Florida, both Bennett and Nicolato said they think the program is workable in other places, and that Rhode Island’s size allows it to serve as a pilot program for other states.
Hillsborough County announced Wednesday that the county is expanding its rental assistance program to allow tenants to receive up to five months of missed rent, moving it closer to a more comprehensive model like Rhode Island’s.
"I think this is doable to any community," Nicolato said.
Reducing landlords’ property taxes
Proposal creator: Salim Furth, a senior researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a free-market-oriented think tank in Virginia
Benefits: City and county governments should consider rewarding landlords for forgiving missed rent or renegotiating leases by giving them a break on their property taxes, Furth argues as part of a paper published in June.
Furth also suggests that state or local governments, as well as apartment associations, can create model forms for lease re-negotiations and forbearance agreements to give people confidence that their new contracts are fair and follow the law. Landlords aren't lawyers, he pointed out, and so may be intimidated by having to quickly draw up a new document that may end up in court.
Furth likes this idea, for one, because it's "so easy," he said.
"Of all the things to ask a county to do, to have your staff attorney spend one morning writing up a template, even if it's only used by half a dozen landlord-tenant pairs, you've still done something beneficial," he said.
Drawbacks: Reducing the property taxes for some property owners could result in higher taxes for others.
"That's one that might be politically harder," Furth said, especially if officials don't want to further burden other residents who are experiencing their own pandemic hardships.
Can it work in Florida? Making a change to property taxes would require action by the Florida Legislature, which isn’t scheduled to officially start meeting until the spring. (Lawmakers can call a special session to meet sooner, but that’s highly unlikely).
But Mike Twitty, the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, said that he and Hillsborough appraiser Bob Henriquez have a meeting scheduled next week to begin talking about relief for property owners. One possibility would be to offer a credit on next year’s taxes, similar to programs offered to homeowners displaced by hurricanes.
Tailored moratorium with bank negotiations
Proposal creator: State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach
Benefits: Pizzo’s pitch is that rather than having CARES Act funding be paid to tenants, who then pay their landlords, who then write a mortgage check to their banks — why not let the government work directly with banks? It would increase efficiency, as well as stretch dollars further because the funding wouldn’t be padding in profit margins, he said.
It could also mean tenants wouldn't owe massive balloon payments at the end of the eviction moratorium, because the more gradual repayment plans offered to landlords by banks would be extended to them.
“From a Democrat in South Florida this doesn’t sound popular, but I think it’s very unfair that landlords have been asked to go this long without any provisions or protection,” Pizzo said. “My idea is really simple: It’s a tri-party agreement between the bank, tenants and property owners.”
Pizzo had also been advocating to the governor’s office that the moratorium be extended but so it would only apply to tenants who have not yet received their full unemployment benefits, something he would support adding to the moratorium if it’s extended past September.
Drawbacks: To add conditions to the eviction moratorium in this way would require the state Department of Economic Opportunity to verify who is still owed unemployment checks and issue some kind of document prohibiting their landlords from evicting them.
In additional to any administrative challenges, it could also be a political grenade for the state to conduct that kind of audit, Pizzo said. But he added that eventually allowing the moratorium to expire for renters still owed money by the state would be a worse outcome.
“We’ve got to do something,” Pizzo said.
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