How COVID exposed Florida's eviction crisis
By Caroline Glenn - Orlando Sentinel - May 13, 2021
Jocelyn Bennett paints her daughters’ toenails, not bothered by the strong scent of nail polish filling the room at the HomeTown Studios in Orlando. The girls show off their pink toes, toddling around the small pay-by-the-week hotel room, one of many the Bennetts have called home since the pandemic began and they got evicted.
It’s just one room with a bathroom with not enough space to even open the front door all the way. But it’s got a stove and a fridge, and it’s better than living in their car or outside. There are two beds, one for mom and dad, and the other is shared by their five kids who are all under 6 years old.
These days, a bottle of Dollar Tree nail polish is one of the only luxuries Jocelyn Bennett can give them.
“That’s the worst feeling to have is I can’t provide for my kids. That’s probably the worst feeling you can have as a parent, not knowing what to do and calling 2-1-1 and them not knowing what to do,” Jocelyn, 26, said, referring to United Way’s emergency hotline.
In March 2020, Jocelyn lost her nursing assistant job at a senior living facility. Dexter, her husband, had been between jobs, finding work through a temp agency. They were already on food stamps. In April, they couldn’t cover the rent. Their landlord told them they needed to be out in 30 days. And the family became homeless in a matter of weeks.
“It was a downward spiral after that,” Dexter, 36, said. “Since COVID started, we’ve been living in hotels.”
For renters in Florida, this is what eviction can look like. It doesn’t always play out in a courtroom because many renters can’t get a court hearing, which results in their landlord automatically winning the case. Some people, like the Bennetts, leave without responding to an eviction notice because they don’t think they can fight it.
Housing experts argue Florida has some of the harshest eviction laws in the country, written so landlords can evict people as quickly as possible and without going to court. During the COVID-19 outbreak, those landlord-friendly laws, coupled with the state’s severe shortage of affordable homes, rising rents and years of stagnant wages, left thousands of suddenly jobless renters exposed. And even after the government ordered a halt to eviction proceedings and federal dollars were made available to help people pay rent, many tenants were not spared.
Black Floridians, who were already more likely to lose their job to the pandemic and die from COVID-19, were even more likely to be locked out of their homes. In a mostly Black part of downtown Orlando, for example, renters were about six times as likely to face eviction than in another mostly white part of downtown, according to new data compiled for the Orlando Sentinel by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.
Shimberg estimates more than 57,000 evictions were filed in Florida just from March 2020 to mid-December, pushing families like the Bennetts into homelessness at a time the government was ordering people to quarantine.
Central Florida renters, many of them the same low-wage workers who power the region’s tourism economy, were particularly vulnerable. Even before the pandemic and mass layoffs upended their lives, they lived paycheck to paycheck in a town where rent keeps climbing and wages don’t budge.
So when the bottom fell out of the tourism and service industries, there was no safety net for them, and Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature did nothing to help.
“They are the ones who face wrongful eviction, they are the ones who can’t get living wages, they are the ones who are struggling to find reliable public transportation. It’s all on them,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orlando. “And when we ignore these crises with affordable housing, eviction, wages, public transit — we’re doing it on the backs of working people.
“They are the ones who pay.”
Renters struggled before COVID
Florida ranks among the states with the worst affordable rental housing shortages in the nation, data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show. New housing has been added to try to keep up with the state’s population growth, but developers have largely ignored building places to live for low-income residents.
Over the past 20 years in Florida, nearly 200,000 rental units priced under $1,000 per month disappeared as landlords increased rents. At the same time, about 1 million units priced above $1,000 were added, the Shimberg Center found.
And as rent increased, pay lagged. Since 2005, Florida’s minimum wage has gone up by just $2.50. It won’t hit $15 per hour — $31,200 annually for full-time workers — until 2026, a voter-mandated move that’s expected to lift millions of Floridians out of poverty and help close pay gaps for women and people of color.
Because wages haven’t grown, Diane Yentel, president of the NLIHC, said many neighborhoods are still out of reach for renters. NLIHC found an Orlando resident would have to make $23 an hour, or a $47,840 yearly salary, to afford a two-bedroom rental that costs $1,248 per month.
“There was a way for lower-income workers in our country decades ago to be able to afford housing in a way that’s simply not possible today,” Yentel said.
Some of the most common occupations for renters in Florida — housekeepers, cashiers, janitors, restaurant cooks and servers — not only pay some of the lowest wages, but they were also at the businesses most likely to shut down and conduct mass layoffs to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Those workers were some of the 1.4 million Floridians displaced by mass layoffs last spring who struggled to collect unemployment benefits and the same renters who later faced eviction.
“They were barely hanging on before COVID,” Yentel said. “When you pay so much of your already limited income towards your rent, you’re always one financial shock away from missing rent and being evicted, in the worst cases becoming homeless. Pre-COVID, that financial shock might be a natural disaster, or it might be an everyday disaster, you know, a broken-down car, a sick child and missing a day of work.
“Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial fallout was the financial shock.”
That was the case for Jocelyn and Dexter Bennett.
Before the virus, their family didn’t make much but had enough each month to scrape together rent. They had the money from Jocelyn’s nursing job and Dexter had been finding construction and landscaping work through a temp agency. Now Jocelyn stays at the hotel with the kids — they can’t afford child care — and Dexter works at the Second Harvest Food Bank, where he makes $400 a week.
It’s just enough to afford their tiny hotel room, which costs $400 a week. Dexter also washes cars and tutors kids, and food stamps help. Sometimes they get meals and toiletries and diapers from the One Heart for Women and Children food pantry.
But Dexter is thankful that at least his family is together. Last year, after the eviction, Jocelyn lived at a homeless shelter for a few weeks and the kids stayed with family. Dexter bunked with his dad in Orlando until he could save enough to move the family down from Tallahassee. Most of their belongings are still in storage.
“We’re just by the grace of God making it,” Dexter said. “We’re trying to figure it out and by God’s grace we will.”
‘I’m just a person in a hard situation’
But the pandemic didn’t only displace low-income Floridians.
Alexiss Green, 45, had worked for 20 years as a corporate accountant, earning over $50,000 a year. In 2019 she wanted to reinvent herself, so she quit her job, moved her two teenagers into a rental home in Clermont and used her savings to buy a fixer-upper, the first investment in her new house-flipping business.
Three months after buying the property, COVID hit and she couldn’t safely send out crews to work on it. She fell behind on the loan payments and is now working with the lender to relinquish the property. She lost entirely a second investment she made in a joint property.
Without any income, paying the rent — $1,850 for a four-bedroom house — became impossible. In September, she found an eviction notice taped to the front door. She hadn’t paid rent since April 2020.
“I’m not a deadbeat person who doesn’t pay her bills, I’m just a person in a hard situation,” Green said. She said she understands her landlord has bills, too, “but I don’t have control over what’s going on in the world right now.”
Green wasn’t living in poverty before the pandemic, but rent ate a big chunk of her income. She’s no different from many renters across the state.
In Florida, 1.4 million of the state’s 2.7 million renter households, across all income levels, spend at least 30% of their yearly income on rent. Of those, 938,957 pay even more than that, according to the Shimberg Center. That erodes the ability to save money or buy a house, or even have a few months’ worth of savings to cover an unexpected expense.
Home prices have also dramatically increased, making lifelong renters out of people who in another time could have afforded to buy a place. In 2000, the median price of a home in the Orlando market was $165,649, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Orlando Regional Realtors Association.
Today it’s $285,000.
Homeowners are better protected
In Florida, homeowners as a whole are on more stable financial footing, after the foreclosure crisis in 2008 forced banks and lenders to toughen the requirements to qualify for a home loan. The median income for homeowners is $70,486. In contrast, renters make a median income of $42,527.
Homeownership buys stability and the chance to build wealth. Most monthly mortgage payments don’t go up like rent, and even during the pandemic home values improved.
Owning a home also means stronger protections against losing it. For example, a federal foreclosure moratorium shields any person with a federally backed mortgage loan, which covers about 70% of homeowners nationwide. From March 2020 to mid-December, 7,497 foreclosure suits were filed in Florida during the pandemic, compared with 57,381 evictions.
The eviction moratoriums imposed by the state and federal governments because of COVID prevented an immediate deluge of cases, but thousands of renters who should have been protected slipped through.
From April through July 2020, when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ original eviction moratorium was in effect, 8,277 evictions were filed by landlords, compared to the 40,000 cases filed in a typical four-month time frame in the state. Then, when DeSantis changed the moratorium’s wording to suspend just the “final action at the conclusion of an eviction proceeding,” landlords started filing in droves.
There were 7,370 evictions filed in August. In September, there were 8,922. In October, another 10,627.
Some tenants mistakenly thought they were automatically protected and didn’t have to answer a summons from the court. If they didn’t respond in five days, that was grounds for an “automatic default” for the landlord.
Some homeowners laid off during the pandemic also got behind on mortgage payments. The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates 2.3 million homeowners are in forbearance plans.
But because the foreclosure process is much lengthier than evictions, homeowners weren’t at risk of being homeless in weeks. By law, lenders can’t file the first legal notice of foreclosure against a delinquent homeowner until four months after the first missed payment.
“We acknowledge that even in our system, that you’re not likely to lose your house in a foreclosure in a matter of weeks,” said Chief Judge Donald Myers, who oversees the 9th Circuit Court in Orange and Osceola counties. “It’s likely going to take upwards of a year to make that happen.”
Most lenders also have programs to prevent foreclosure, such as a short sale where the homeowner sells the house for less than what’s due on the mortgage and the money goes straight to the lender, or transferring the title to the lender in exchange for the mortgage debt being erased, or going into forbearance.
None of the options guarantees cancellation of the debt and can be blemishes on a credit report, but they buy time to look for a job, catch up on payments and keep people in housing.
“A homeowner just has protections that the renter doesn’t have,” said Marissa Vetter, a program director at the St. Johns Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that helps distressed homeowners. “We’re going to see the crisis with homeowners, it’s just they have a little more time.”
No guaranteed court hearing
The unequal protections for renters and homeowners exist in part because of changes by lawmakers that have all but eliminated the opportunity for tenants to explain to a judge why they’ve fallen behind on rent.
The way the law is now, tenants have five days to deposit the money the landlord says they owe after getting a summons, otherwise, they waive all defenses and “the landlord is entitled to an immediate default judgment for removal of the tenant.”
Even access to a mediator who can resolve the case out of court hinges on tenants depositing the back rent.
“This particular statute is probably why Florida is, in my opinion, dead last in tenant rights out of all 50 states,” said Jamos “Jay” Mobley, senior housing attorney at The Legal Aid Society in Orange County. “You could have a great defense, but you can’t present it unless you can pay upfront. Landlords know this and file questionable suits all the time knowing the tenant can’t come up with the amount they allege is due. And they win.”
Myers said that part of the law “defines the landscape” for evictions in the state.
“The statute is quite clear,” Myers said. “When the Legislature put a requirement for a rent payment into the registry of the court within five days from service, they were saying, ‘We’re serious.’”
According to statistics provided by the courts, 41% of eviction cases end in automatic default in Florida. Myers said he was surprised the number isn’t higher.
The Florida Apartment Association, which represents mostly corporate landlords, supports the deposit requirement because it limits the time landlords go without rent, which they depend on to pay their mortgages and other expenses.
“While we completely understand some of the difficult financial situations that residents might find themselves in, there is another side to this equation, where you have a housing provider on the other side of it,” said Amanda Gill, a spokeswoman for the association. “What are you saying to them when they can’t pay their mortgage? I mean, they’re not able to avoid foreclosure simply because they have a resident who is in pain.”
If they moved quickly and submitted the correct paperwork, moratoriums gave tenants a way to at least delay eviction. But landlords have been finding ways to undermine the moratorium, and groups that include the apartment association have sued the federal government to get it overturned.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., recently ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority when it issued the nationwide moratorium, but the Department of Justice has appealed. If the moratorium is struck down, Mobley said courts would have to revert back to strictly enforcing the rent deposit requirement.
The moratorium bought Green, the mother of two from Clermont, a hearing, and a judge halted her case for six months. But a few weeks ago, her landlord asked the court for another hearing because he said Green hadn’t followed the rules set by the CDC requiring tenants to make “best efforts to make timely partial payments” — despite the landlord having received $4,000 in rental assistance.
‘Not asking for a handout’
On the day of her Zoom hearing, Green has her long braids pulled back from her face and is wearing one of her favorite pair of earrings with the Superwoman logo. Every few seconds she clicks the button to join the meeting, anxious about being late. When it starts, a judge and her landlord’s face pop up on the screen.
She doesn’t have an attorney to represent her — 90% of tenants facing eviction don’t — and Florida’s courts aren’t funded to provide public defenders for civil cases. She does her best to answer the judge’s questions, pausing a few times to check her files and punch numbers into a calculator. She tells the judge about the rental assistance, which she received from United Way, and says she’s applied for more aid from Lake County.
She applied for an emergency loan through the Small Business Administration but was denied and has applied to office jobs but hasn’t had any luck. She managed to collect some unemployment and received stimulus checks but that money was used to pay other bills and buy food.
“I’ve been working since 16, and I’ve never had to use government assistance,” Green says. “I am not asking for a handout, but what I am asking for is to be able to remain under this moratorium for the safety and protection of myself and my children.”
Her landlord, who’s in his 70s, says he’s on a fixed income and is using Social Security payments to pay his mortgage. He doesn’t have a lawyer, either.
A week later, the judge’s ruling arrives in the mail. Green prays over the envelope before ripping it open. It’s bad news. The judge ruled she hadn’t made any “timely partial payments,” even $5 or $10 a month. She has 10 days to move out.
Green shuts herself in her bathroom so her kids won’t hear her crying. “I don’t understand,” she whispers. “I’m just totally numb right now. I don’t know what to do right now. I don’t know where to go.”
The day before Green has to be out of her house, she’s finishing packing and loading a moving truck to take the furniture to a storage unit.
Christmas ornaments, the kids’ volleyball trophies, a bowl of shells they collected on a family vacation are all shoved into black, plastic garbage bags. The kids are in their rooms taking apart bed frames.
As she starts out of the driveway the next morning, a deputy pulls up. She tells him the keys and garage door opener are on the kitchen counter. A friend in Davenport 45 minutes away offered Green her guest room, and the kids are staying with their dad in Clermont, another family separated by eviction.
But Green is trying to have faith.
“At the end of the day, no matter how unfortunate this entire thing is, there is something better on the horizon that I just can’t see yet,” Green said. “But this is a circumstance I’m going to have to fight tooth and nail to come back from.”
A few days later, Green gets an email from Lake County saying she’s been approved for $9,000 in rent relief. According to county staff, it will go to the landlord who evicted her.
Have you fallen behind on rent or faced eviction during the pandemic? We want to hear your story. Click here.
How to get help
If you’ve fallen behind on rent, call United Way’s emergency helpline at 2-1-1 to learn about rental assistance programs.
If you are currently facing eviction and live in Central Florida, contact Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida at 1-800-405-1417 to find out if you’re eligible for free legal guidance. Residents in Orange County can also contact the local Legal Aid Society at 407-841-8310. Seminole County residents can call 407-834-1660.