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Bills promote the use of mediation in residential eviction cases

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Rep. Fentrice Driskell

Rep. Fentrice Driskell

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, some Southwest Florida lawmakers are calling for greater use of mediation in eviction cases.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa and an attorney, is sponsoring HB 481, “Residential Evictions.” The measure is identical to SB 412, “Residential Tenancies” by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, who is also an attorney.

“Our state should be using mediation to discuss options prior to the writ of possession being issued by the court,” Rouson said at a February 1 press conference announcing the legislation.

Both measures say that a court, “in which a residential eviction mediation program has been established, shall refer any matter involving a residential eviction to mediation.”

Driskell said the pandemic has only exacerbated Florida’s long-standing affordable housing crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us uncertain times,” she said. “We have not seen the full extent of the economic fallout…this will help tenants stay in their homes.”

Rouson said families facing eviction could be forced to move in with friends or relatives in more crowded conditions, or on the street, putting them at greater risk either way of contracting COVID-19.

Sen. Daryl Rouson

Sen. Darryl Rouson

“Studies have shown that the availability of public housing has a direct impact on public health,” Rouson said.

Their bills would also repeal a provision in the law that requires renters to post back rent into a court registry — or the amount they believe they owe, if that is being disputed — before challenging an eviction.

Families that have lost one or both incomes because of the pandemic can’t meet the requirement, Driskell said.

“Some constituents live paycheck to paycheck, unable to find an affordable place to live,” she said.

Driskell and Rouson were joined at the press conference by housing advocates and Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa and sponsor of HB 657.

The bill would seal records of evictions filed on or after March 1, 2020, “if the court finds that the tenant was adversely impacted by COVID-19.”

“Many of you have heard, and may have even experienced the eviction process,” Hart said. “This is devastating to everybody in the family, especially children.”

In late January, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell told a legislative committee that some 40,000 evictions have been filed in Florida since the pandemic struck last year.

Princeton’s Eviction Lab predicted last year that some 28 million Americans are at risk of homelessness due to the pandemic. Researchers estimate the figure in Florida is about 800,000.

Groups representing landlords are quick to point out that the economic crisis is hurting them as well, and that many landlords see little prospect of collecting back rent.

The Florida Landlord Network and similar groups say landlords have been willing to forgive late charges and work out payment plans with tenants, but many of their members complain that tenants have taken unfair advantage of federal and state eviction moratoria to evade payment.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development figures show that half of all landlords are sole proprietors, many of whom rely on rental income to pay for living essentials, including their mortgages.

Tammy Greer, executive director of Gulfcoast Legal Services, says her group has been working with renters and landlords to address non-payment issues before the eviction process begins.

“We are not viewing these cases as adversaries to landlords,” Greer said. “We empathize with their situation as business owners who rely on rental income.”

From October to December of 2020, Greer’s group received a special allocation for rental assistance from the Pinellas Community Foundation in partnership with Pinellas County to make “expedited payments of verified rent” directly to the landlords, Greer said.

Greer said sealing eviction records is “a huge issue for low to moderate-income renters.”

“This negatively impacts our clients’ ability to secure safe, affordable housing in the future,” she said. “I doubt landlords would object to the sealing of the records as long as the eviction is pandemic related.”

Rouson said landlords qualify for federal CARES Act funding, and the mediation process is designed to benefit both parties.

Driskell said the legislation takes a balanced approach.

“I think it contemplates very fairly trying to have a level playing field,” she said.

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