June 24 update: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium, though July. Read more about that here.
After about 14 months of eviction freezes in Florida, tenants and lawyers are preparing for the possible expiration of the last layer of protection at the end of this month.
The moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to expire June 30, after it was previously extended in March. Proponents of its last extension had cited the fact that $25 billion in rental assistance money passed by Congress had still not gotten into the pockets of landlords to relieve tenants’ back-payments.
But now that those efforts have launched — with Tampa Bay cities and counties as well as Florida’s state government running different programs to help pay missed payments of rent and utilities — there’s a sense that the order be allowed to expire this time.
Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit at Bay Area Legal Services, which provides free help to low-income renters, said his team has been telling tenants with pending eviction cases to prepare to receive final orders to vacate a property, called writs of possession, starting next month. Some of these renters have applied to receive rental assistance money but it hasn’t come through yet, he said.
“They’re basically just waiting for the shoe to drop,” he said. “We’ve been telling them, ‘You have to be ready to go, because we think this is going to be lifted’ ... Those are tough letters to write.”
But much of the buzz is still based on speculation. The March extension didn’t come until three days before it would have lapsed, and changes to eviction policy throughout the pandemic have often happened in 11th-hour announcements. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that President Joe Biden is considering a shorter, one-month extension.
“We learn not to predict things because they’re always happening at the last minute when they make extensions,” said Ken Burke, the clerk of the circuit court in Pinellas County, whose office issues the writs of possession after a judge rules in favor of a landlord. “If it expires, we’re ready to start processing these things.”
The Centers for Disease Control did not respond to an email asking about the upcoming expiration date. To qualify for the order’s protections, renters must submit a signed form to their landlords stating under penalty of perjury that they meet certain requirements. Those include that they’ve tried to obtain government assistance for rent costs, make less than $99,000, have experienced a “substantial loss of household income” or had “extraordinary” out-of-pocket medical expenses. They must also say that eviction would either render them homeless or force them to live in close quarters with others.
In both Hillsborough and Pinellas, many eviction cases where tenants have successfully invoked the moratorium have proceeded up through the point where judges issue an order. If the judge approved the eviction, that means once the moratorium expires, the clerk would issue a writ of possession, which would then be delivered by sheriff’s deputies and renters would have 48 hours to leave.
Eviction case data in both counties don’t quantify exactly how many cases are frozen by the moratorium. But charts provided by the clerks’ offices show the number of writs of possession issued has been significantly down even compared to pre-pandemic times, suggesting a backlog of potentially thousands of evictions that could all happen fairly quickly after the order expires. The Hillsborough writ of possession data also include a small number of foreclosures.
The charts show suppressed numbers of writs starting in April 2020, when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide moratorium. DeSantis weakened that order, then allowed it to expire at the end of September, which coincides with a rise in writs. Hundreds of Florida renters were evicted during that spike because of loopholes in the federal moratorium that has left some people, such as those with month-to-month leases, particularly vulnerable.
Burke cautioned that in some of the still-open cases, renters may have already worked something out with their landlords or moved on.
“We just don’t know how many of these have gone away naturally,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a good portion of these where no action is going to take place and it will eventually be closed by lack of prosecution, which means lack of activity.”
If the order were extended past June, beyond its effect on eviction cases, it would also allow for more time for the long list of suits brought by landlords to inch forward.
In May, another new challenge was filed by the Florida Association of Realtors and a Gulfport property management company called R.W. Caldwell Inc. in the Tampa-based U.S. Middle District of Florida. Similar to the others, it argues that the moratorium is a gross overreach of the Centers for Disease Control’s authority, and says it has “terrorizing terms” threatening landlords with hefty fines if they take any steps “that might be perceived to violate” it. No hearing has been scheduled yet.
The results of the legal challenges have been mixed, with conflicting rulings from different courts. Some federal judges have ruled in favor of the landlords but the impact of the ruling was limited only to the landlords who filed suit. In one case in Washington, D.C., the judge struck down the order nationwide, but the ruling has been stayed while the federal government appeals.
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