New moratorium delays expected spike in eviction filings
MIAMI-DADE EVICTIONS AND THE COVID-19 CRISIS
14,037 EVICTIONS HAVE BEEN FILED SINCE THE PANDEMIC BEGAN
(MAR. 12, 2020 – JUL. 30, 2021)
WEEKLY FILING TOTALS
The latest pandemic-related federal eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will give distressed Florida tenants more time to make use of rental assistance programs and perhaps help smooth out any surge in evictions when moratoriums finally end.
The previous CDC COVID-19 related moratorium expired July 31 amidst some confusion. With Delta variant infections surging around the country, the Biden Administration said only Congress could extend the moratorium, while Congressional leaders said they didn’t have time to act.
On August 3, the CDC issued new guidelines through October 3, which raised their own questions about how long the moratorium would last. That includes President Joe Biden, in announcing the extension, questioning its legality and the provision that the moratorium can end early in places where COVID transmission drops.
But for now, legal aid officials in Florida, one of the nation’s top pandemic hotspots, say the moratorium will delay an expected backlog of eviction cases, and perhaps mitigate that eventual number filed.
“Legal services programs across the state are preparing for the tsunami of eviction cases and are working to ensure that we maximize the number of clients we serve and keep in their homes,” said Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. “This past year has taught us the importance of home and with COVID cases in Florida now spiking, the importance of a safe place remains critical for the safety of our clients and our entire community.”
Sarah Sullivan, executive director of Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., noted the previous moratoriums didn’t stop all evictions, only those related to nonpayment of rent. (State courts electronic filing records show thousands of evictions cases filed in May, June, and July, the last three months of the previous moratorium.)
“Because the pandemic went on so long and the moratoriums went so long, people ran out of their leases,” Sullivan said. “That wasn’t covered in the moratorium. Landlords could get their tenants out because of that.”
“Evictions for things like criminal activity or violation of the lease for other things than nonpayment of rent were still proceeding,” said Kevin Rabin, senior staff attorney with Three Rivers and vice chair of the Florida Housing Umbrella Group, a coalition of housing attorneys from legal aid offices across the state.
“A lot of landlords have been figuring out ways to get around the moratorium,” including just waiting for leases to expire, said Sean Rowley, advocacy director for the Tenancy Rights Unit of LSGMI.
Federal rental assistance helped some tenants, Rabin and Rowley said, but remained an under-utilized resource. Associated Press reported on July 31 that only 2% of federal rental assistance money allocated for Florida was used.
Rowley said the money did help reduce evictions but was problematic to access.
“I think a lot of that was due to the bureaucracy of getting everything set up and processing the applications and following up with tenants to get the documentation,” he said. “A lot of landlords have been somewhat resistant to participating in the program and we’ve also run into the problem of landlords taking the money and moving forward with the evictions anyway.”
Aside from landlord reluctance to accept federal assistance, Rabin also cited bureaucratic problems.
“The federal government allocated a huge amount of money, but the state of Florida didn’t have the infrastructure built up to disburse the money,” he said. “We’re not alone on this — it’s not just us. A lot of folks have had difficulty in finding ways to get this money in the hands of tenants.”
Lawyers representing landlords and tenants will also have to adjust to the new moratorium — in addition to expected legal challenges — as this moratorium operates differently from the previous ones in that it can end early if COVID transmission rates drop.
“If there’s 14 days where the county no longer has substantial or high rates of spread, the county is no longer covered,” Rabin said. “There’s going to be a lot of administrative work for attorneys representing landlords and tenants and for the courts to figure where and when that will apply. That will be a difficult task.”
Right now, Rabin and Rowley said, the ban applies to the entire state with 66 counties having a high rate of transmission and one having a substantial rate.
The moratorium will offer a chance for more Floridians to access federal rental assistance and will likely lead to other resolutions, such as landlords terminating expired leases for nonpaying tenants. But legal aid attorneys are still bracing for a surge of cases when moratoriums eventually end.
“I anticipate there will be a pretty large mass of filings at some point when the moratoriums expire,” Rowley said. “We’re trying to help as many people out as we can and provide as much assistance as possible and updating our materials. We’ll just see what happens.”
Data from the state courts showed that evictions surged slightly from May to June, and then dropped slightly in July.
Information from Miami-Dade County showed that evictions, which had been running 300-450 a month before the pandemic, dropped to less than 100 in the early days when the county sheriff stopped eviction activities and Gov. Ron DeSantis issues a statewide moratorium. Evictions rose to near pre-pandemic levels when DeSantis first allowed some evictions to resume in August 2020 and then ended the state moratorium in October. They declined somewhat in late 2020 and for 2021, which includes the time rent assistance programs resumed.