SARASOTA, Fla. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire March 31. Experts say that the moratorium will likely be extended again as billions of federal dollars become available for residents who have fallen behind on rent.
While it is difficult to get a clear picture of how many households will be affected when the moratorium finally ends, mass evictions could have a profound impact on the community.
There are approximately 1,100 lawsuits currently filed to remove tenants from their housing in Sarasota and Manatee counties, according to James Clegg, a paralegal with Gulfcoast Legal Services.
The number of lawsuits filed to remove tenants has decreased by over 60% in Sarasota and Manatee counties during the last year, in large part because of the bans on evictions. There are 381 eviction notices filed in Manatee County, a drop of 79%. In Sarasota County, there have been 771 evictions filed, a decrease of 39%, court records show.
The drop in eviction lawsuits locally mirrors national data. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that the median eviction rates from select courts are down 94% in April 2020 compared to April 2019.
Not all evictions are related to the CDC moratorium and include lawsuits filed to remove tenants for other reasons, like violating a lease. That makes it difficult to know exactly how many tenants might be evicted for nonpayment, said Robin Stover, deputy director of housing and financial stability at Gulfcoast Legal Services.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was saying there’s going to be a tsunami of evictions. Then there was no tsunami, as we see,” Stover said. “There was barely a wave.”
Whether a tsunami is coming, Stover said, remains to be seen.
‘OVERWHELM THE SYSTEM’
Some landlords may also be waiting for the moratorium to officially end before filing with county courts, spiking the number of eviction cases. The number of families facing eviction could be enough to “overwhelm the system very, very quickly,” said Linda Harradine, CEO of Legal Aid of Manasota.
Landlords have been able to file eviction cases for nonpayment in the court systems, but the federal moratorium prevents landlords from enforcing the final step – a 24-hour notice to leave the property, Harradine said.
“The financial security of these families and their basic safety are really all at issue,” Harradine said.
Over 430,000 adults in Florida indicated they are living in households not current on rent or mortgage payments where eviction or foreclosure is likely in the next two months, according to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some lost their jobs last March and are still unemployed or underemployed. Others have scraped by until now with CARES Act dollars or nonprofit assistance such as the Season of Sharing fund. Back-due rent has piled up to thousands of dollars in some cases, Harradine said.
“When you’re talking about a family that’s already living on the edge, how are you going to come up with that?” Harradine said. “They don’t have the money to catch up. They don’t have the money to go forward.”
RENT HELP IS ON THE WAY, BUT TIMING IS AN ISSUE
With the latest round of federal funding combined with funding passed in December, tens of billions of dollars have been allocated for state and local governments to help people catch up on past-due bills.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of National Low Income Housing Coalition, said little of the initial $25 billion passed in December for emergency rental assistance has gotten to people in need, though.
If the moratorium is not extended, Yentel said, the money to help renters will not get to those in need in time. The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently signed a petition urging the Biden administration to extend the moratorium.
“It’s literally impossible for that money to reach renters and landlords before the scheduled expiration of the moratorium on March 31,” Yentel said.
While Manatee County’s $12 million Emergency Rental Assistance Program applications have been open since Feb. 16, the program is still being developed in Sarasota County, according to the county’s site on the program. Sarasota County received over $13 million at the end of January for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, according to a list of payments to state and local governments from the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Yentel said that even under the federal moratorium, many renters have lost their homes already because of the confusion and lack of public outreach about the moratorium and rental assistance programs. And when the moratorium expires, tens of thousands of tenants nationally could lose their homes since landlords may have already taken steps for an eviction.
‘SPIRALING DOWN INTO POVERTY’
The damaging effects of potentially hundreds of renters locally losing their homes at once is a looming reality.
An eviction is public record in Florida. A record of evictions can present barriers for safe, affordable housing in the future. In an already competitive housing market, landlords are less likely to rent to a tenant with an eviction.
Yentel said research has shown evictions are related to rising cases of coronavirus; lead to poor health, especially for children and mothers; are detrimental to mental health; and lead to finding housing in areas with lower-performing schools and less access to transportation and fewer jobs.
“Even just a single eviction filing on a person’s record can create a spiraling down into poverty that becomes very difficult for that family to climb back out of,” Yentel said.
Desiree Doggett, property manager with Overseas Realty, a company that manages 500 properties throughout Sarasota, said she has worked with about 30 tenants over the last six months to help them apply for CARES Act assistance and has directed renters in need to agencies like St. Vincent de Paul Society, JFCS of the Suncoast and others.
“Initially, when COVID started and all this happened, I reached out to all my tenants and said, ‘I don’t want you guys to start getting too far behind the 8 ball because if you do, you’ll never catch up,’” Doggett said.
Some tenants who have received federal assistance through rent programs, stimulus checks and unemployment have chosen not to pay, Doggett said. Others have tried diligently to get assistance to avoid eviction when the protection finally lifts.
“Everything is going to get overwhelmed. There’s going to have to be a better transition – not just lift the moratorium,” Doggett said. “When people realize they’re not safe anymore or the illusion of safety is taken away, maybe they are going to hustle to get help.”