Feeling the squeeze: With the federal eviction moratorium expiring Saturday, thousands of residents across Central Florida face homelessness and uncertainty

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By
Dibya Sarkar

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Managing Editor

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A federal eviction moratorium set to expire Saturday could potentially impact  thousands of Floridians, including many Orange County residents, tossing them out onto the streets or into substandard housing or emergency shelters.


State Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D) who represents District 44, which includes Winter Garden, Ocoee, Oakland, Windermere and all of the resort areas, said she expects people in her district to be “hard hit.”


“A lot of the people who live in the district work in the entertainment and hospitality field and those are low-paying jobs, and these are people who can’t work from home,” she told us. “They have to report in person. When we had the lockdowns, Disney furloughed 77,000 people, so I think we will be hard hit.”


Thompson added that the end of the eviction moratorium is sure to exacerbate Orange County’s already problematic homeless problem.

“You have people who sometimes work more than one job and they simply don’t make enough money to afford the rent here in Central Florida, which has gone up,” she said. “At the end of the month, when the moratorium expires and people are evicted from their homes, where are they going to go? We have people living in hotels now, barely able to pay the cost of that.”


Jeffrey Hussey, director of public interest and litigation at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which represents tenants, said he agreed with that assessment, describing the situation as a “tsunami.”


“We’re talking about millions of people that are on the verge of eviction across the country,” he told us last week. “In Florida … it’s a high number, as well,” adding it will be in the thousands who are in the pipeline for eviction — with people of color disproportionately affected.


A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., non-profit investigative news organization, predicted the country could face “the worst housing crisis in decades” once the moratorium ends.


“If thousands of families, just in Central Florida, get evicted, where are they going?” asked Shakhea Hinton, regional director of Central Florida for Florida Rising, which provides assistance to Black and Brown communities. “Homeless shelters are already at capacity and even then, that’s short term. There’s still going to be instability, uncertainty, and it becomes a safety issue, as well.”


Hinton, who covers Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties for her organization, told us she doesn’t think Central Florida nor the state has the infrastructure to house displaced residents, leaving them to find shelter in cars, under bridges and elsewhere. Many will be from Black and Brown communities, and it won’t just be lower-income tenants; many middle-class families will also be impacted. The recent resurgence of Covid-19 caused by the Delta variants along with hurricane season makes the situation especially dangerous for displaced residents.


“It’s heart wrenching,” said Hinton.


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While Thompson said she would like to see the eviction moratorium extended, especially given the rise in Covid-19 cases, Hussey, who was on a call with the White House early last week, said he didn’t get any indication that the Biden administration would seek another extension.


Rep. Val Demings (D-Florida) announced Thursday that she's co-sponsoring legislation that would extend the eviction moratorium through the end of this year. "The eviction moratorium has saved countless Floridians from disruptions that can unravel the careful balance of their lives. I strongly support this extension, especially as Florida’s COVID-19 cases once again begin to skyrocket," she said in a release.


Thompson added that Gov. Ron DeSantis has been asked to speak up for a moratorium extension so that Florida could get federal funds, “but we haven’t seen that.”


Moratorium a ‘Band-Aid’


Even if the moratorium is extended, Hussey said it’s a “Band-Aid” at best, given the lack of affordable housing in Orlando where the average rent is “well over” $1,000 per month.


“When that moratorium goes away, it’s ripping that Band-Aid off and it’s going to expose a lot of problems,” he said. Evicted people will have to go to substandard housing or shelters, “and that really, really concerns us.” Plus, families that move to another area would likely have to re-enroll their children into the school districts, which Hussey called a “nightmare scene” for them.


According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), there is a shortage of affordable rental homes in Florida that are available to families with extremely low incomes, defined as at or below the poverty guideline or 30 percent of their area median income. There are about 530,000 renter households that are extremely low income and many of these households are “severely cost burdened,” meaning they are more likely to sacrifice necessities such as healthy food and healthcare to pay rent.


Hussey said organizations like his are most concerned about evictions that have already been filed, meaning the landlord has won their case but it was stayed because of the moratorium. In that case, tenants could be ousted from their homes by Wednesday, Aug. 4, at the earliest. With the moratorium ending Saturday, he said a judge could issue a writ of possession Monday. That writ goes to the sheriff’s office, which could serve it by Tuesday, giving tenants 24 hours to vacate.


But Hussey doesn’t believe that’s going to happen. He said judges don’t like to uproot families and may have some latitude such as trying to get people to apply for emergency rental assistance. Hinton said her organization has been working with several commissioners and other elected officials to urge the courts and law enforcement not to evict people, to no avail.


End of a 15-month moratorium


At the beginning of the pandemic last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had issued an order April 2, 2020, that suspended any evictions because of non-payment of rent caused by Covid-19. After several extensions, the order expired on Oct. 1.


Federally, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (or CARES) Act was signed by then President Trump, a moratorium was placed on evictions until July 24, 2020. When that expired, evictions were allowed to resume. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed another one Sept. 4, 2020, which was initially set to expire at the end of 2020. Congress extended that to Jan. 31.


The new Biden administration then extended the moratorium twice, first to March 31 and then to June 30. In mid June, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition of more than 850 national, state, and local organizations, sent a letter to cabinet secretaries and other high-level officials in the Biden administration, urging them to extend the deadline and make other changes to help renters from being evicted.


“With at least 6 million renter households still behind on rent as the expiration of the eviction

moratorium nears, the Biden administration must work quickly and aggressively to avert an

historic wave of evictions this summer and fall,” according to the letter. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky extended the eviction moratorium for another month until July 31, which the agency said at the time would be the “final extension.”


$20,000 limit


Hinton said she and several colleagues have been going to several apartment complexes to help people apply for rental assistance. Unfortunately, she said the interest has been low. Earlier this week, she spent four to five hours at an apartment complex in Orange County only to have about six people show up. “It’s so discouraging,” she said. She reasoned that many may have already applied for assistance and are waiting to hear back.


On Wednesday, Orange County held a training webinar to help nonprofit organizations and others understand the portal and application process to help at-risk tenants apply for emergency rental assistance. The virtual seminar was attended by more than 150 people, said the webinar’s host, Dianne Arnold, a manager with the county’s Citizen Resource and Outreach Division. Orange County has been allocated $33.4 million for the income-based program, funds that can only be spent for people living in the unincorporated parts of the county and some smaller cities. The city of Orlando has a separate $8 million rental assistance program.


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HOUSING and OTHER SERVICES

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The county’s program will provide a maximum of $20,000 to eligible households that owe past rent retroactive to April 2020. And if there’s enough funding within that $20,000, then the county could pay one month of prospective or future rent. “So if your rent’s past due through June and if there’s enough funding within the $20,000, then we can assist you with July to give you that one month future to help you get in a better situation,” said Arnold during the webinar.


The money can also help tenants pay for utilities such as water and trash that the landlord bills to tenants as well as fees for washer and dryer and pets, among other things. However, the county won’t pay for late or returned check fees or a fee for a parking spot.


Arnold said that once an application is submitted, it takes, on average, less than a week until a county reviewer examines it. But it doesn’t mean the application is completed, but that the reviewer would likely contact the applicant for more information as well as get in touch with their landlord, she added.


“That is not the reality, unfortunately,” said Hinton. She said some residents have told her that they applied in March and only received feedback on their applications a couple of weeks ago. She said that’s too long a wait.

VoxPopuli asked Arnold whether the county was expecting an onslaught of applications and if the system was designed to handle a surge. While Arnold didn’t say if they expected an onslaught of applications, she did say the system should be able to weather any surge.


“We don’t anticipate any problems with our system not being able to handle a lot of applications,” she said. When the program was first opened, she said it received the highest number of applications those first two days with no issues. “And the software we’re using is the same software being used by a lot of counties throughout Florida and to our knowledge none of them have had any problem with their systems going down when they get a lot of applications at once.”


Unspent emergency rental assistance


During a congressional hearing Tuesday on federal assistance to prevent evictions, NLIHC Executive Director Diane Yentel told members of the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that just $3 billion of the $46.5 billion allocated for emergency rental assistance had been spent (The $46.5 billion is the combined funds from the CARES Act last year and the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021).


“Of the first allocation of $25 billion, states had, on average, spent only 10% of their total allocations and cities had spent 20% through June. Nearly half of all states and more than 100 cities had spent less than 5% of their total ERA allocations through the end of June,” said Yentel in her written testimony.


An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press, published June 29, found that more than $425 million — or 16 percent out of $2.6 billion from the CARES Act earmarked for rental assistance — was either not spent or repurposed by March 31.


Data provided from the investigation displayed information about 70 state and local agencies. It showed that Florida received $250 million for rental assistance and spent about $151 million for that purpose, helping nearly 33,000 households. However, about $99 million, or 40 percent, was unspent or reallocated for other purposes.


But the data also revealed that Orange County’s government spent 99 percent of its $78.3 million in rental assistance to nearly 68,000 households. About $1.16 million was either unspent or reallocated. Data showed that the county government received nearly 108,000 applications as of March 31. The Center’s investigation also noted that the county continued to spend the money on rental assistance after March 31. In the city of Orlando, data showed that the Heart of Florida United Way spent 100 percent of the $250,000 it received on rental assistance to 550 households through March 31.


Door to door


Hinton said it’s probably too late for some residents to apply for emergency rental assistance and will have to face eviction. Starting Monday, Florida Rising will do some “door-knocking” next week to check on residents to see what their application status is or if they received visits from their landlord or the sheriff’s office, she said. “We’re going to be getting the pulse on how our members are feeling, what have they seen within their communities and … get a feeling of what’s going on in their respective neighborhoods,” she added.


Hussey said his legal aid organization has been preparing for this point for more than a year. “I’m sure we’re going to get an increase or influx of calls when people start getting served … and they have 24 hours to get out. In a lot of cases there’s nothing we can do for them,” he said. “This has the potential to be a major crisis.”


Still, Hussey said it’s not in the best interest of landlords to evict their tenants. A judgement against a renter “is worth about as much money as a piece of paper it’s written on.” Instead, landlords should help renters apply for emergency rental assistance to receive some compensation. But he said he understands that some “mom and pop” landlords who have rental properties that they use for their retirement may be frustrated because they haven’t received rent for 12 months and are seeking a “fresh start.” Other landlords may simply have “bad” tenants and want to get rid of them.


There’s been “no remedy to date for the landlords and some of them are just fed up,” said Hussey.


Founding Editor Norine Dworkin contributed to this story.


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The story was updated at July 29, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. with information about Val Demings co-sponsoring legislation to extend the moratorium through the end of the year.

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