TAMPA — Daniel Santisteban, 71, had to go to the bathroom in a trash can or a nearby gas station for months while his toilet stopped flushing, but that hasn’t kept him from trying to keep his apartment as homey as he can.
A painting of the virgin Mary and gold-framed, grainy photos of relatives now gone line the walls of his one-bedroom apartment, which is not far from Raymond James Stadium. A small angel figurine hangs above the doorway that leads to the bathroom, where part of the ceiling, splotchy with mold, was caving in. Apartment staff recently removed that part of the ceiling, he said, but water still leaks from the floor above.
“I want to grow old gracefully,” he said.
Santisteban’s apartment has been deteriorating for some time — his toilet was recently fixed after being inoperable for four months, according to a court filing, and his bedroom window has remained broken for more than a year — so he withheld his $535 rent checks since December to try to force his landlord to make repairs.
That prompted an eviction filing, one that is more complicated for Santisteban to combat in court because he hasn’t signed a lease since 2017.
The coronavirus pandemic brought to the fore how aspects of Florida’s eviction law leave some tenants legally vulnerable. Month-to-month tenants were among the hundreds who have been evicted during the past year because they fell through a massive loophole in the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium, for example. The moratorium only protects renters being evicted explicitly for missed rent, not for terminations of leases.
But these facets in the law predate the pandemic — and as Santisteban’s case shows — will continue to exist in situations that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.
“In a way, the pandemic, because so many more people got swept up in these problems, it’s sort of like the sea retreating, and you see what was underneath there that may have been hidden before,” said Elizabeth Strom, a housing researcher and an associate professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida.
For tenants whose units have become “wholly untenable,” withholding rent is legal under Florida law. But because his annual lease expired, Santisteban is a month-to-month tenant who can be evicted for a “termination of tenancy” without any further justification required.
“If the lease is month-to-month, the tenant’s only remedy is to terminate the month-to-month tenancy and leave. ... It’s his only legal option,” said John McMillan, the lawyer representing Santisteban’s landlord, a company listed in court documents as SCM Realty, in the eviction case. “It’s not to live there for free for five months because he has some complaints about the property.”
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When asked more specifically about Santisteban’s toilet and other major maintenance issues, McMillan said he has “no personal knowledge about that.” The company that owns the complex, SCM Realty, which lists its mailing address in New York, declined to comment through McMillan and requested that a reporter stop trying to contact them.
Luis Cordero, who is in charge of maintenance at Santisteban’s complex, said he tried to fix the issues earlier but Santisteban wouldn’t let him into his unit.
“He knows what he was doing,” Cordero said. “He stopped paying because he had a plan to leave.”
Santisteban said that isn’t true.
In court documents, three letters addressed to Cordero dated late last year from both Santisteban and a social worker requested that repairs be completed immediately.
Santisteban, a Tampa native and retired ballroom dance instructor who lives on Social Security, said he’s been trying to get into an assisted living facility, but so far has only been able to get on waiting lists that are weeks or months long.
“I should be with elderly people,” he said.
In some situations, month-to-month leases can be mutually beneficial to both landlords and tenants, especially when the tenant is unsure how long he or she wants to stay. But they also leave tenants open to being forced out on short notice — 15 days, according to state law — which can be especially risky for lower-income residents without the savings for a new security deposit. In Florida, tenants with no written leases who pay rent monthly are also considered month-to-month.
Some public officials have taken a closer look at the state’s eviction laws during the pandemic.
In Miami-Dade, its County Commission passed a measure toward the end of last year that extended the notice period to 30 days before a landlord terminating a month-to-month lease can file for eviction in court.
“You have very little protection on a month-to-month lease,” said Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes for All, a group that advocated for the change. “I think that’s making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”
But efforts in Tallahassee have been less successful.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, filed House Bill 481, which would have repealed a requirement in the law that tenants deposit all their unpaid rent to the court before they’re allowed to present their defense against an eviction. That mandate has caused repeated confusion during the pandemic and resulted in the eviction of at least one Tampa Bay renter, a local Marine veteran who lost work.
“If people are already so far behind on their rent ... they probably can’t pay a lump sum all at one time, in terms of what they owe, into the court registry,” Driskell said. “But maybe it’s possible for them to pay something.”
To that end, the bill would have also directed some eviction cases to mediation programs, in counties that have established them, to help landlords and tenants work out disputes in a way that’s beneficial to both parties without an eviction. Pinellas has such an option, called the Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program.
Neither Driskell’s bill nor its Senate equivalent has been heard by the Legislature. With the session scheduled to end April 30, that means it’s essentially dead.
One eviction-related bill gained some momentum. House Bill 1193, filed by Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, would allow for tenants who meet certain criteria to have their eviction records sealed, so a past eviction doesn’t prevent them from getting “affordable and habitable” housing in the future, he said.
“It acknowledges the fact that for a lot of folks, this eviction becomes a scarlet letter that they carry that’s very difficult for them to overcome,” Aloupis said. “There have to be pathways for people to clear their name.”
It was passed by the entire House last week. However, it has not moved in the Senate, where it’s sponsored by Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. He said opposition from the Florida Apartment Association, a landlords organization, has been effective.
“They lobbied quite a bit against the bill,” Jones said earlier this week. “We’re really working to get this through because I realize this is something that’s extremely important, especially as we creep up to the quote-unquote ‘post-COVID’ time period.”
On Thursday, he texted an update: “I think it’s dead on our side.”
The Florida Apartment Association confirmed its opposition to the bill. Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the group, said that allowing past cases to be sealed would hinder landlords’ ability to assess prospective tenants’ past, possibly leading to “unintended consequences.”
“For example, in the absence of the ability to properly screen potential residents’ eviction data, landlords may resort to tightening other forms of their screening criteria to properly mitigate risk,” she said in an email. “This could include a greater reliance on financial records or credit scores.”
In the meantime, Santisteban continues to work with the laws on the books. With legal representation from Bay Area Legal Services, he’s in the small minority of renters facing eviction who has a lawyer — who has since filed motions arguing that the termination of his tenancy was illegal retaliation.
Santisteban has kept purple rubber gloves in the top dresser drawer, directly beneath a burning prayer candle, to stay as sanitary as he can when he’s taken his feces to the dumpster, he said. He’s also been bathing in his sink to avoid the dripping, moldy ceiling above his tub.
“I just have to take it one day at a time,” Santisteban said.
“All I can do is pray.”