With steady work as an accountant, Stephanie never thought she’d be homeless. Like many Floridians, however, she found herself unemployed thanks to the pandemic. She was able to stretch her savings for several months, but she reached a point where she could no longer pay her rent. When her landlord filed for eviction, not only would she lose her home, she would also have an eviction on her record, discouraging other landlords from renting to her even once she was back to work.
Stephanie, a Bay Area Legal Services client, is one of thousands of Florida renters facing a precarious housing situation due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Florida tenants faced with eviction are made especially vulnerable thanks to state laws considered by experts to be landlord-friendly. Two bills recently filed in the Florida Legislature will give renters just a little more breathing room as we contend with twin economic and public health crises.
The federal government has, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enacted a moratorium on evictions of tenants who can document a loss of income that makes them unable pay rent. Why, then, do we need state action?
First, the moratorium does not prevent filing an eviction and entry of an eviction judgment by the court. Evictions cases continue to be filed and taken to judgment. According to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, there were 3,567 cases filed in Hillsborough, 1,748 in Pinellas and 666 in Pasco County in the last few months of 2020 despite the moratorium. Only those households who deliver a signed declaration to their landlord documenting a substantial loss of income can temporarily prevent the last step of the process, removal from their home.
Second, eviction filings become part of public records used by property managers to screen applicants. Having an eviction on your record, whatever the reason, can make it difficult to lease in the future.
How can the Legislature help renters like Stephanie? One bill (SB 412/HB 481) makes it easier for tenants to respond to eviction notices and provides for mediation of landlord-tenant cases in some instances. The eviction process in Florida moves very quickly — depending on the type of eviction, tenants may have just a few days’ notice that an eviction will be filed and just five days to file a response. But it gets more difficult: a tenant facing eviction can’t even ask for a court hearing unless she first deposits back rent into the court’s registry. Without the benefit of legal counsel (some 90 percent of tenants do not have a lawyer), many renters never have their day in court.
SB 412/HB 481 eliminates the rule that tenants must deposit rent into the court registry or face an immediate eviction with no court hearing. It also sends eviction cases to mediation in counties which have residential mediation programs in place. Together, these provisions help tenants avail themselves of the due process that should be part of our judicial system.
To make sure that Stephanie and other renters can get back on their feet, a second bill (SB 926/HB 657) seals eviction records from the period of the pandemic. Let’s not forget: When the pandemic hit in March and April of 2020, 1.7 million Floridians quickly lost their jobs. Those who qualified for unemployment insurance often waited months for help, during which time they were likely to fall behind on rent. People like Stephanie have been slowly getting back to work, but that eviction on her record would make it difficult for her to find another apartment. It serves no public purpose to have thousands of Floridians unable to secure leases as the fallout from the pandemic blots their record for years to come.
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With the pandemic stretching into its second year, and a full economic recovery still distant on the horizon, we are likely to see many Florida families beleaguered by housing insecurity. As a housing researcher I know that full solutions include emergency relief funds (as proposed in the $1.9 trillion Biden administration recovery package) and longer-term efforts to increase affordable housing supply (for which full funding of Florida’s Sadowski Housing Trust Fund is essential). Helping renters who may fall into arrears as they try to stay in their homes, or secure other housing after an eviction is, however, an important and achievable goal for the 2021 Florida legislative session.
Elizabeth Strom is an associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida and a co-leader of the Scholars Strategy Network’s Florida chapter.