Hundreds of Florida renters evicted during pandemic despite CDC order

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Emily L. Mahoney and Christopher O’Donnell

Published November 30, 2020

  
Nicole Kelley felt confident when she dialed into her eviction hearing in late September.

A Lyft driver whose income had dropped off during the pandemic, she had submitted to the court a copy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention form in which she swore, under penalty of perjury, that she fit the criteria to be protected from eviction until 2021.

But the hearing lasted five minutes, and she felt like the judge barely acknowledged the form. A few weeks later, her landlord texted to say she had to be out in three days. She sat on the floor of her Brandon rental duplex and cried.

“I feel like I failed my kid,” Kelley, 44, said in a phone interview from the Tampa hotel where she’s living now with her 13-year-old daughter thanks to financial help from loved ones, she said.

Kelley still can’t understand why her case ended this way: “How does the tiny courtroom and tiny landlord overrule something in place by the government? By the president? … I feel like we got lied to.”

The nationwide moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control was supposed to protect renters who have lost work from the pandemic. After it was announced, Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed Florida’s eviction moratorium to lapse at the end of September, saying it would avoid confusion over which order was in force.

But court records show that the federal order has failed to protect renters in Florida — including hundreds of Tampa Bay families — from losing their housing.

More than 430 writs of possession — the final legal step of an eviction where tenants are removed by sheriffs’ deputies — were ordered in Pinellas County in October, and more than 280 in Hillsborough County. Those totals contain small numbers of writs in foreclosure cases, but the vast majority are evictions.

By contrast, no writs were issued in April and May in Pinellas and fewer than 25 were issued in Hillsborough in May and June, when DeSantis’ moratorium largely stayed courts from completing evictions. After DeSantis modified the moratorium at the end of July to narrow its protections, writs started to tick back up but were still under the most recent numbers.

The number of finalized evictions also are surging across other parts of Florida, records show. In October, 786 writs of possession were issued in Broward County, 394 in Duval County and 242 in Polk County.

“This is already a crisis situation that will only get worse, especially after December when the CDC protections expire,” said Tom DiFiore of Bay Area Legal Services, which offers free legal services to low-income families facing evictions and immigration issues.

The Centers for Disease Control did not respond to an email requesting comment. Fred Piccolo, spokesman for DeSantis, did not respond to a call or text message seeking comment from the governor.

Under the agency’s order, landlords can start eviction proceedings, but they may not physically remove tenants until after Dec. 31, according to an FAQ released by federal officials. To be eligible for that protection, renters must submit a form attesting they meet certain criteria. Families unable to pay full rent due to a “substantial loss of household income” qualify if they earn less than $99,000 per year or $198,000 for a two-income family, have made “best efforts” to make partial payments and secure government aid, and would either become homeless or be forced to move into a shared living setting upon eviction.

The agency said the order was needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 should millions of Americans lose housing this winter and be forced into shelters or to double up with friends or family.

But unlike Florida’s moratorium, the federal order puts the burden on tenants to prove they should not be evicted, DiFiore said.

For example, Florida law requires tenants facing eviction to deposit the full amount of missed rent before they can present their legal defense in court. In Kelley’s case, even though she submitted the required form, the judge ruled that because she failed to deposit the rent money she owed into the court’s registry, she was eligible to be evicted.

“Obviously, there’s a moratorium in effect, so most average tenants at this point owe a larger amount than normal — three, four, five, six months’ rent — so it’s very difficult to deposit that amount owed to have their day in court,” DiFiore said.

He said he’s seen other Hillsborough cases where tenants’ failure to submit the unpaid rent to the court resulted in a judgment against them, but unless the landlord challenged the accuracy of the tenant’s Centers for Disease Control form, typically the actual evictions were put on hold until next year.

But Kelley’s case shows the way a tenant’s case ends could depend on which judge they get.

“Nothing is written in stone,” DiFiore said.

The 13th Circuit declined to make the judge in Kelley’s case available for an interview. Courts spokesman Mike Moore said judges are prohibited from commenting on individual cases.

According to court records, Kelley owed $5,000 when her eviction case was filed. One of her landlords, David Bargo, said he granted two months of free rent to his other tenants but not Kelley, who he said “took advantage” and didn’t pay her security deposit.

Kelley moved in in March and said her income was affected immediately by the pandemic. She said she mostly dealt with Bargo’s brother, who she said agreed to waive the deposit if Kelley did work on the rental unit.

Renters who have an eviction on their record often struggle to find new housing, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. He questioned why some judges are finalizing evictions when the federal order gives tenants the “present right” of possession of their homes until the order expires.

“Those courts are helping landlords evict tenants rather than applying the law,” Dunn said. “It’s indefensible, it’s cruel, and it undermines efforts to combat COVID-19.”

Clearwater renter Malcolm Wright’s eviction was allowed to proceed because his landlord said they were terminating his month-to-month tenancy. He had missed several months of rent after losing work at a company that paints and waterproofs commercial buildings and couldn’t get unemployment checks through the faulty state system, he said.

But because the eviction was filed as a tenancy termination and not under “nonpayment,” Wright’s case didn’t fall under the protections of the federal order, according to Pinellas courts spokesman Stephen Thompson.

“If this is what they’re doing, there’s no point of even making a moratorium,” said Wright, 54. “If all they’re going to do is loophole it.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose officers enforce the writs, said he’s noticed the rise in evictions, which are now at a level consistent for a typical year. He said that while some renters have been evicted for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, such as those who damaged property, the Centers for Disease Control’s order has given too many tenants false hope.

“It’s not a moratorium,” Gualtieri said. “I think it’s a misnomer, and it leads people to believe that something is in place that does something it doesn’t.”

* * *

Despite the stronger protections in Florida’s order, tenants had been slipping through the cracks even while it was in effect.

Sixty complaints alleging improper residential evictions or rent price-gouging were filed with the Florida Attorney General’s Office after DeSantis issued his order on April 2 through late September.

The complaints, which were obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request, reveal how some Floridians were more at risk of eviction depending on their living situations. But the stories they told were largely the same: lost work, eviction notices and a fear of what comes next.

Some tenants alleged clearly illegal eviction practices, such as being locked out or having utilities turned off to force them out. Others reported being kicked out of places that may not have fallen under the governor’s order: an assisted living facility, a recreational vehicle park, motels, a long-term AirBnb.

Candice Calhoun was one of those who contacted the Attorney General’s Office after she and her 17-year-old daughter were evicted in September from Allister Place Apartments on Busch Boulevard in Tampa.

She had fallen behind in her rent after being let go from temp work processing unemployment claims.

On Sept. 8, a notice of eviction was posted on her door. Attorneys at Bay Area Legal Services advised her to complete the Centers for Disease Control form, give it to her landlord and file a copy in court.

Less than an hour after Calhoun filed her form, a judge upheld the landlord’s writ of possession. No reason was given for why she did not qualify for protection under the federal order, she said, though she suspects an error on her lease was to blame. The next day, she was forcibly removed from the apartment and the locks changed with her possessions still inside.

Three days later, she got a call that her stuff was being put out on the curb. She rushed over to the apartment to save what she could but had nowhere to take it. Other tenants scavenged most of her possessions and furniture.

“I lost everything,” she said.

An assistant manager at Allister Place who identified herself as Barbara declined to comment on the case. Court records show that the complex has filed 22 evictions since Florida’s moratorium elapsed on Sept. 30.

Calhoun has since found more temporary work and is living in an apartment while she cleans and paints it for the owner. Then she will be homeless again.

“If I could just get myself stable with a roof over my and my children’s head,” she said. “When you don’t have a roof over your head, it’s difficult to focus on anything else.”

* * *

Despite the Centers for Disease Control’s goal of tamping down on the coronavirus spread, some Tampa Bay families are at increased risk even while its order is in effect.

Wright, the building painter, was back at work after his employer re-opened when he said a friend who lived nearby called him and said he saw Wright’s landlord removing all his belongings. Wright said he came home angry and bewildered, because he had read the federal order and thought that even though his eviction had gone through, he wasn’t allowed to be physically removed until 2021.

“I’m thinking I have to get here and call the police, because he’s not supposed to do any kind of lockout,” he said. But the police told Wright he was mistaken, he said.

Wright’s landlord did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

He has since moved in with two friends who are providing a place to crash. No longer living alone, he’s likely at greater risk of infection.

Meanwhile, Kelley, the Lyft driver, said she wears a mask whenever she’s in the hotel hallways outside of her room, but it’s difficult to feel safe. A Marine veteran, Kelley said some of the feelings of insecurity are reminiscent of her time overseas.

“My biggest fear is my daughter catching something,” Kelley said. “That would be my worst-case scenario.”

She recently arrived back at her room to find a notice taped to the door.

Another hotel guest had tested positive for COVID-19.