If a landlord won’t let you see the apartment before you rent it, there’s probably a reason why.
Kemyia McGhee said she learned that lesson the hard way last month when she discovered the place she had just signed a yearlong lease for was crawling with bugs, covered in grime and had a busted window.
“The roaches greeted us at the door,” she said. “It was horrible. Everything was dirty or broken.”
After weeks of filing work orders and calling to complain, McGhee, 42, gave her landlord an ultimatum: make the unit livable or I’ll stop paying rent. Two weeks later, she received an eviction notice.
Florida’s landlord tenant law makes it difficult for tenants to demand repairs. Those who complain to the landlord or local authorities risk putting a target on their backs, housing advocates say. Taking the issue to court rarely leads to a favorable judgment for the tenant, records show.
“Your bargaining power is very weak,” said Tom DiFiore, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Services.
The Tampa Bay Times has been featuring stories of area residents dealing with the challenges of the local housing market. McGhee’s story is the fifth installment of Housing Horror Stories, an occasional series exploring the trials and tribulations that Tampa Bay residents have faced in a white-hot real estate market.
In May, she fell behind on her mortgage and was forced to sell her house to avoid a foreclosure. She and her 12-year-old son spent months on the verge of homelessness, hopping between hotels and friends’ couches.
Then her cousin told her about Woodberry Woods, an income-restricted apartment complex in Brandon where a three-bedroom unit would run her only $1,285 a month. She paid $200 to put her name on a waitlist. Three weeks later, she got a call saying there was a spot ready.
McGhee said she wasn’t allowed to tour the unit until she signed a lease and paid first and last month’s rent. She agreed, eager to have a stable place to stay.
“It was a long time coming,” she said. “We had already been out of a home for so long.”
When move-in day came, she picked up her son from school and told him he was finally going to have his own room again. But once they saw the apartment, regret sank in.
McGhee asked the property manager to refund her and cancel the lease, but they told her it was too late.
A representative from Woodberry Woods declined to comment for this story. The complex is owned by Woodberry Woods Apartments LLC, a company with ties to New York-based Read Property Group.
McGhee refused to move into the apartment for weeks and requested that the landlord make several repairs, including replacing the broken window, spraying for bugs, sealing cracks where vermin could get in and fixing the doors on her closet.
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When that didn’t work, she filed a complaint with Hillsborough County Code Enforcement.
Todd Pratt, a spokesperson for the county, said that officers went out to inspect on two separate days, but they couldn’t gain entry to the unit so the case was closed. McGhee said she was not living in the apartment at the time.
There have been 28 code complaints at Woodberry Woods so far this year.
Fed up with the lack of improvements, on Aug. 22, McGhee filed a seven-day notice informing the landlord that she would withhold rent if fixes were not made. Her goal was to get a judge to order the landlord to make repairs and get her rent reduced until the situation improved.
Withholding rent is permitted in Florida under certain circumstances, but it’s not a foolproof remedy. Tenants must follow strict procedures that dictate how and when they need to notify the landlord before stopping rent payments.
“Even if you do it correctly, most of the time you’re going to end up with an eviction filed against you in court,” DiFiore said.
That’s what happened to McGhee. On Sept. 6, her landlord sent a notice stating that she owed $1,257 and, if she didn’t pay within three business days, they would move forward with eviction proceedings.
After an eviction has been filed, the tenant still has to pay any rent owed to the court before they are given a hearing. The court holds the funds in escrow. If the tenant doesn’t pay, the case is automatically decided in favor of the landlord, according to Florida statutes.
There have been 9,979 eviction cases filed in Hillsborough County this year, according to court records. Only 785 hearings were scheduled, meaning less than 8% of tenants got their day in court.
Once a hearing is set, it’s up to the judge to decide whether the maintenance issues are severe enough to warrant withholding rent and whether the landlord has made a reasonable attempt to fix the problems. That will determine whether the tenant is allowed to stay and if they have to pay the full amount owed. The judge could also order the landlord to make repairs and hold them in contempt if they fail to do so, though that outcome is rare, DiFiore said.
He added that few tenants succeed in navigating this legal minefield. And even for those who do, “just having a case filed against you could make it hard for you to find a new apartment.”
McGhee ultimately gave in and paid rent for September to stop the eviction from being filed. She moved into the apartment at the end of August, despite the conditions. She said the landlord has since sprayed for pests, but the window and closet are still broken.
She’s hoping she can file a claim against her landlord and get the judge to reduce her rent while repairs are being made. She also wants her rent prorated for the time she was not living in the apartment.
“This is just another storm and I’ll get through it,” she said. “But I’m not going to just accept anything.”
If you have a housing horror story of your own, we want to hear about it. Fill out the form below for an opportunity to be featured in the series.