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Eviction cases pile up in the courts while tenants wait to see whether DeSantis extends moratorium

By RON HURTIBISE SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL

AUG 28, 2020 AT 8:44 PM

As renters wait to find out whether the governor will again extend the COVID-19-related eviction moratorium, hundreds of landlords are filing evictions cases against tenants they assert are taking advantage of the statewide ban, now ending its fifth month.

Since his original moratorium took effect April 2, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a habit of keeping tenants guessing until the end of each month whether he’ll grant another month of protection against being evicted from their homes.

Asked Friday whether he plans to extend the moratorium another month through September, DeSantis was less than assuring, saying only, “I will work on the moratorium. I think we probably will continue that as well.”

Meanwhile, landlords in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties filed 2,170 evictions cases between Aug. 1 and Aug. 27, far more than in any of the four prior months since the moratorium took effect April 2.

Those cases are the leading edge of a likely cascade of evictions that would leave tens of thousands of Florida families homeless in the coming months if more federal assistance to consumers isn’t approved by Congress and the president, advocates for renters warn.

Stout, a global research firm, predicts that 749,000 Florida households — nearly half of all rental units — are at risk of eviction over the next four months. Citing Stout’s research, the nonprofit Florida Bar Foundation estimated that 530,000 eviction filings could follow the moratorium’s expiration.

Increased filings in August followed DeSantis’ addition of language to his latest moratorium extension allowing courts to process cases while still barring the “final action” of serving orders requiring renters to vacate their units.

DeSantis’ most recent executive order also clarifies that the moratorium extension protects only renters who are “adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As has been the case since April, the moratorium does not absolve tenants of their responsibility to pay all of the rent they missed. They still owe it — and are expected to make arrangements with their landlords to pay it.

Deciding which tenants fall under that protection can be complicated, said Armando Alfonso, a Miami-based attorney who represents 80 landlords in South Florida. Because “adversely affected” can be interpreted to cover a wide variety of circumstances, Alfonso said he’s decided to wait until after the moratorium’s potential expiration on Sept. 1 to file “five or six” pending cases.

Miami-based attorney Kenneth James Lowenhaupt, of the firm Lowenhaupt Sawyer and Spinale, has been particularly active, filing dozens of evictions cases, including 23 case against tenants of The Preserve At Coral Square in Coral Springs, 12 cases to remove tenants of Windsor Forest Apartments in Pompano Beach, 11 cases against tenants at an apartment complex in Sunrise, and nine suits against tenants of a landlord incorporated as Bell Fund.

Lowenhaupt did not respond to an interview request sent by email and phone.

Miami-based United Property Management, which manages more than 9,000 units in South Florida, filed 14 cases against tenants of Pompano Palms Apartments, located south of Sample Road and west of Interstate 95 in Pompano Beach.

Eviction is last resort, property manager says

One of those cases, filed against Craig Junior Walters, states that he owes his rent payments of $1,539 due for April, May, June, July and August, plus a past-due balance of $755.49 for March. The eviction complaint filed in Broward County Civil Court states that Walters “is not known to have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency as defined in DeSantis’ order.”

Walters, reached by telephone Friday, said that’s not true. He said he lost his job as a security guard at the beginning of the pandemic and filed for unemployment benefits in April but his application remains under review and has not been approved. The complex’ managers, he said, haven’t offered to work with him to ensure that he, his two kids, and their mom can remain in the unit after the moratorium ends.

“They know we’re still out of a job,” he said. Despite making verbal threats to get him to pay rent each month, “they didn’t give us any kind of feedback as customers, as far as finding a way to help us,” he said.

With no unemployment payments, the family has spent what little money they have on utilities and food, he said. “There’s a pandemic going on. We have to eat.” Walters said he plans to apply for help from Broward County’s rental assistance program.

United Property Management spokesman Louis Mata said he could not discuss specifics of individual tenants’ cases. But he said his company has worked hard to help tenants who have sought help, including waiving late fees and not sending three-day notices to pay or leave, like some landlords have sent despite the moratorium.

About 30 Pompano Palms residents have worked out “some form of arrangement” and staved off evictions cases, he said.

“It stinks if someone has been out of work since the beginning of this thing. We recognize that,” he said. “We’re just looking for a means to work something out. Some folks have paid $100 on $1,000 rent they owe. We ask, ’What can you pay?’”

He added, “Only when every means of communications have been exhausted and there’s been no payment, then we file.”

A minority of tenants either don’t know or don’t care that most landlords have their own bills to pay, Alfonso said. “They think landlords are sitting on millions of dollars. That’s not true. They’re paying mortgages, insurance and HOA fees. If they’re not getting rent payments from their tenants, that’s coming out of their pockets.”

“Meanwhile, I see a surge of landlords who haven’t been paid for six months, saying, ’You’re not interested in working anything out. We’re going forward.’”

How to defend against eviction

Tenants who believe they’ve been targets of illegal evictions need to act quickly after receiving a formal notice of an eviction suit if they want to make a case that their failure to pay was related to a COVID-19 hardship.

Some judges are delaying evictions if a tenant who receives a formal notice files a response to the court within the required five business days of receiving an official eviction notice, said Alana Greer, director and co-founder of the Miami-based Community Justice Project, a legal services foundation for low-income residents.

Under state law, tenants who want to fight their eviction are provided only five business days to file a response. In addition, they are required to post a bond with the court for the entire amount of unpaid rent before they can even get a court hearing. That’s an advantage for landlords that typically makes fighting an eviction nearly impossible for tenants, Greer said.

But some judges are considering COVID defenses without requiring the bond, she said.