FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Despite a two-month extension of the federal eviction moratorium, tenants are continuing to wait for promised financial assistance as landlords grow angrier about past-due rent. And judges are taking inconsistent approaches to eviction cases as they wait for legal guidance.
Anger and confusion are rampant.
“It’s a fiasco right now,” said Robert Ernst, a Fort Lauderdale-based real estate broker, property manager and process server who represents landlords in eviction proceedings. Referring to different approaches county judges have taken in eviction cases during the pandemic, he said, “I wish there was more consistency.”
Broward County judges don’t know whether the latest moratorium from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even legal while it faces a challenge in federal court, Chief Judge Jack Tuter said Thursday. Until there’s a ruling, each judge will apply his or her own reasoning in their cases, he said.
“Each of our 20 judges who handle evictions are independent judicial officers who will each have to make a decision whether the new CDC moratorium is enforceable,” Tuter said by email Thursday. “We cannot dictate a single approach to this question. It is possible you will see conflicting rulings until an appellate court weighs in.”
Meanwhile, nearly everyone agrees that distribution of $25 billion in renter assistance money, sent to states and local governments in January, has been painfully slow.
New eviction ban covers Florida
The new CDC order will be in effect until Oct. 3 – unless it’s struck down – in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 transmission. All 67 Florida counties currently qualify under that definition. Florida is considered the epicenter of a summer surge fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant.
Advocates for renters say they hope the latest extension provides enough time for rental assistance programs administered by local and state governmentsto deliver billions of dollars in aid. In South Florida, assistance is available through Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the cities of Miami and Hialeah, and a statewide program run by the Department of Children and Families called OUR Florida.
Zillow, the national home search website, estimates that in Florida, 357,000 renter households are behind on their payments and about 144,220 are at risk of eviction. Nationwide, more than 7.4 million households are behind and 3 million face risk of eviction, the company estimates.
To invoke protection from removal under the new CDC order, tenants must file a declaration similar to one required under the order that ran from Sept. 4 to July 31. On the form, tenants must declare that their income was reduced because of the pandemic, that they are at risk of homelessness, and that they’ve done their best to make rent payments and secure government assistance.
Realtor associations in Georgia and Alabama challenged the CDC order in federal court on Wednesday. The groups’ challenge of the previous CDC moratorium prompted a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices to issue opinions agreeing that the health agency overstepped its authority. But one justice, Brett Kavanaugh, voted with the 5-4 majority to keep the order in place while the administration sought congressional approval to extend it.
Broward rulings could conflict
Responding to emails asking Broward County’s judges how they plan to interpret the CDC order, Administrative Judge Robert W. Lee wrote: “While we understand that this issue is currently a topic of intense interest, we are prohibited by judicial ethics rules from commenting on pending cases, as well as how we might rule on any given issue in the future.”
Judges have been authorizing evictions and removals for reasons unrelated to the pandemic since Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying that the CDC’s ban provided sufficient protection, allowed a statewide eviction moratorium to expire Sept. 30.
Ernst says judges have long taken confusingly different approaches to eviction cases, even before the pandemic.
Ernst says, “Some want mediation. Some will give tenants an extra week or two to come up with the money. Judge Lee is good. He says, ‘You haven’t paid, get out.’ Some want to hear tenants’ stories and find them convincing. They’ll say, ‘Let them stay.’”
After the original CDC eviction ban expired July 31, Broward judges authorized removal of more than a dozen tenants – in orders called “writs of possession” – out of more than 80 cases with final orders of eviction. All but a handful of those eviction and removal orders were issued to tenants who never submitted the CDC declaration.
Filing the CDC declaration
On Aug. 5, two days after the new CDC moratorium was issued, County Judge Alison Gilman authorized removal of a tenant who filed a CDC declaration in March. In a motion requesting final judgment, the landlord asserted that the CDC moratorium no longer applied because it expired July 31.
In a separate case, County Judge Ellen Feld authorized eviction and a final removal order of a tenant on Aug. 2. But the tenant, a Hollywood mother of two, filed an emergency motion Aug. 5 to block the removal order along with a declaration asserting protection under the newest Aug. 3 CDC moratorium.
Feld’s judicial assistant notified the woman by phone later that day that her motion had been granted.
On Aug. 4, County Judge Florence Barner authorized removal of a tenant despite a handwritten plea on July 23 begging for time while she waits for federal rental assistance, unemployment payments, Section 8 housing and other help.
“At this time I am asking the court to be understanding of my situation and that I have minor kids,” the letter stated, “I am asking for three to four months to caught up on past rent and recurring rent. I am willing to have a payment arrange [sic] plan with my current landlord to help me in this pandemic.”
But the landlord wasn’t planning to complete those documents. On July 30, the landlord asked the court to approve the final eviction.
Before opening its rental assistance application portal to the public, Broward County officials worked with the court system to get applications to renters and tenants with pending eviction cases. To become eligible for up to 15 months of past-due rent, landlords had to agree to allow tenants to stay put for three months into the future.
But many landlords aren’t interested in supporting tenants’ requests for past-due rent and just want those tenants gone. Of the eviction cases approved by Broward judges after July 31, numerous case files include reports from mediators stating that the two sides could not come to an agreement.
Many landlords have little empathy for tenants who received thousands of dollars from federal stimulus payments, tax refunds and unemployment checks and didn’t put any of that money toward rent, several landlords said in court filings. Some tenants continue to work every day while refusing to pay rent, said Ernst, who manages 40 rental units.
“I’ve got low-income tenants in $1,000-a-month apartments who are buying new cars, running around with new Louis Vuitton bags,” he said. “They don’t have to pay rent. They don’t want to pay rent.”
Aid money slow to roll
Those who want to pay their debts and remain in their homes have been frustrated by the slow rollout of emergency rental assistance funds approved by Congress and the president in December. The money was delivered in January to states, counties and large cities that applied to distribute it.
But applications weren’t accepted, reviewed or approved until months later. Miami-Dade County began accepting online applications on March 1 but took several weeks before it began distributing money.
Palm Beach County opened its portal to the public on March 10, while Broward didn’t begin accepting applications until April 23. More than a month passed before the first Broward applicant received funds. Florida, after tapping its Department of Children and Families to oversee distribution of its $871 million, didn’t open its site to applicants until early May.
A day before the old CDC moratorium expired on July 31, DCF issued a news release stating that it had distributed $18.3 million to more than 4,300 applicants – just 2% of the $871 million. By Tuesday, that total had increased to $22.5 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
In a statement to the paper, DCF spokeswoman Mallory McManus blamed the lag on the federal government, saying rental assistance programs were required to provide landlords with notification periods and require landlords to verify information provided by tenants.
Changes in the program will allow money to flow faster in coming weeks, McManus said. Following guidance issued by the Treasury Department in May, the state will now send checks directly to tenants if landlords are unresponsive.
So far, South Florida’s three counties have distributed far more money than the statewide program. As of Aug. 6, Broward County has distributed $8.3 million to 921 recipients – an average of $9,000 per household.
Palm Beach County has approved $21.3 million for 4,047 applicants – or an average of $5,257 per applicant. That number combines rent and utility awards and results in a lower average. Miami-Dade County says it has paid out more than $35 million to more than 4,000 families who received an average of more than $8,700.
All three programs are open to applicants and will continue to distribute funds as applications are approved, officials said.
Taruna Malhotra, coordinator of Palm Beach County’s program, said officials there have streamlined the application process by eliminating “document burdens,” operating in-person assistance offices and reviewing applications within 24 hours after submitted online.
“If an application is in good order, we are able to cut the check within eight to 12 business days,” she said. “Our team is working tirelessly and processing applications.”
As the original $165 million is distributed by the three counties, they’ll begin tapping into another $189 million approved as part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill approved in March. Florida will get another $689 million if it figures out how to get money to more applicants throughout the state.
Rebecca Yae, senior research analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization, blamed the slow distribution pace in Florida and across the nation so far to the “unprecedented amount” of funding local and state governments have been charged with distributing.
“It’s a heavy lift.,” she said. “Thankfully a new moratorium is in place that will help protect renters while the funding gets out.”
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