Legal Services Offers Guidance for Renters in Uncertain Times
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux, Executive Director at Legal Services of North Florida
What does having a home mean?
For some of us, it is where we feel safe and comfortable. It may be filled with family, friends, or roommates. We may cook there, create things, have a favorite corner in which to read or play an instrument. Maybe there’s a yard, a porch, or a patio. There may be neighbors who look out for one another. For others, home is simply a place to sleep and keep the things we own, having no sentimental attachment other than to protect me and my family. With some exception and in its simplest form, it provides a roof, four walls, a door, indoor plumbing, and some place to cook.
In a COVID-19 world, our home is also our respite from an invisible virus with broad and varying impact on many in our community. For many, their home has become unstable as they have lost employment, leaving them unable to pay their rent or mortgage. Many still await reemployment assistance. Some have worked out payment plans with their landlords. Others have connected with human services agencies for rental assistance. Most have made difficult choices between food, prescriptions and rent – seeking help from others in the community when they can. Presumably all have been grateful each time they receive more time to gather these funds through federal and state orders preventing their eviction.
For many, their home has become unstable as they have lost employment, leaving them unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
On Tuesday night, Governor DeSantis gave such a reprieve, extending the Florida moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent due to COVID-19 until 12:01 a.m. on August 1. Until then, landlords cannot initiate eviction actions for that reason. While tenants have more time, they see the increase in COVID-19 cases reversing the re-opening of the economy and wonder how they will pay the rent at the end of July.
Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) is one of many human services agencies working to answer this question. LSNF provides free civil legal assistance to our neighbors who are low-income with the mission of giving them access to justice. With decades of experience in stopping illegal and improper evictions, LSNF is working with many families trying to figure out how to keep their homes – the roof over their heads.
As Legal Services observed a lot of misinformation, they developed community education messages shared through community partners and social media. Here are a few lessons learned as we work to address the housing crisis looming ahead of us.
A landlord cannot force a tenant to leave without a court order. Some tenants receive threats from their landlords if they cannot pay their rent. Since March, LSNF has seen an increase in landlords using unlawful means to remove tenants – changing the locks, cutting utilities, and other threats. Our local law enforcement, who are well-trained in handling these situations, have done an excellent job in preventing many of these illegal evictions. Yet we know that many tenants have left in fear, moving in with others and increasing the public health risks within our community.
The government has not forgiven the rent. The largest untrue rumor is that rent would somehow be forgiven and never have to be paid. To be clear: Rent must still be paid. No one stopped the obligation to pay the rent. Not paying the rent risks eviction when the landlord is allowed legally to go to court.
Most landlords want to work with their tenants. LSNF sees many landlords working with their tenants – entering in payment plans and other agreements to make rent more practical. Knowing that it will be hard to find another tenant who has a regular income, some landlords are reducing the monthly rent due for these months. Many landlords cannot make those adjustments because of underlying mortgages and their own bills. Where it is available, landlords are requesting help from their mortgage companies until such time as the rent can be paid. Overall, where reason prevails, tenants and landlords are working together to resolve this economic challenge.
If your lease ends, your landlord may be able to evict you for overstaying your lease. Unless an agreement is made with the landlord to extend the lease, an eviction for overstaying your lease may not be protected by the moratorium. It would be an eviction for a reason that is not non-payment of rent. Some landlords may be glad to extend a lease in light of the uncertainty of students returning to Tallahassee and so few others having the means to pay new security deposits.
Once landlords can file evictions for non-payment of rent, tenants will be required to deposit the rent the landlord demands, or explain why that amount is wrong, to defend the eviction and have their hearing with the court.
Legal Services is glad to be working with others to resolve these challenges. Many human services agencies and government departments have received or will receive funds to provide rental assistance to tenants. County leadership recently convened these agencies as they coordinate resources and how to best get them into the community, knowing that the funds available may still not meet the need. While these funds may not pay all of the rent due, combine these amounts with what a tenant may have AND reasonable negotiations with a landlord and many unnecessary evictions may be avoided. Your local 2-1-1 will be a hub for information on resources as well agencies like Capital Area Community Action, Salvation Army, ECHO, and others.
Private attorneys are also stepping up. The Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the Florida Bar developed a statewide project called FACE – Florida Attorneys Counseling on Evictions. These private attorneys are working with local legal aid programs like Legal Services of North Florida and the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee to provide legal advice to those tenants working to avoid eviction. Many other attorneys are volunteering too, knowing that there are more tenants in need.
UPHS often talks about the power of the collective and that power, including partners like Legal Services of North Florida, Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee, and others, will help more families keep their homes as we survive this pandemic.
For more information, go to www.LSNF.org. or call 850-385-9007.