It’s become a tradition on the final day of each month: Renters and advocates for renters call on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend the state’s moratorium on evictions — in place since April 2 — for at least another month.
And the governor waits until just hours before the expiration to sign an executive order extending it another month. Tenants throughout the state who are unable to pay their past-due rent because of the COVID-19 crisis breathe a collective sigh of relief.
But a decision on Sept. 30 extending Florida’s evictions ban another month might not be necessary. On Sept. 4, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its own moratorium intended to ban evictions nationwide through the end of 2020. It requires tenants to sign and submit to their landlords a declaration they have been unable to pay their rent because of the COVID-19 crisis and have exhausted efforts to seek work and government assistance.
Advocates in Florida, however, worry the CDC protection isn’t set in stone. Currently the CDC’s eviction moratorium faces federal lawsuits challenging the ban and the CDC’s authority to issue it.
One of the suits was filed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a non-profit law firm that challenges overreaches by the “administrative state" and later joined by the National Apartment Association, a trade organization with 85,000 members that manage more than 10 million rental units across the United States.
In a Sept. 22 statement, the New Civil Liberties Alliance said the CDC’s evictions ban “overrules duly enacted state laws across the country that protect landlords from delinquent tenants who break their rental contracts.”
While the CDC claims the ban will help stop the spread of COVID-19 by reducing homelessness, the lawsuit challenging the ban argues that the CDC does not have the power or authority to ban evictions “because these agencies have no right to make law. Only Congress can do that.”
Ida Eskamani, spokeswoman for the Florida Housing Justice Alliance, called the possibility that the CDC evictions ban could be overturned in October “a nightmare scenario.” She urged any tenant seeking protection under its eviction moratorium to download and sign the required declaration, which can be found at the CDC’s website at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf. If possible, they should ask their attorney or a volunteer attorney with their local legal aid society to review it for potential errors or omissions, she said.
Tenants’ advocates are urging DeSantis to extend the moratorium yet again as a hedge against a possible court defeat of the CDC’s eviction ban.
“We think it’s important that the governor continue to protect renters,” said Alana Greer, director and co-founder of the Miami-based Community Justice Project, a legal services foundation for low-income residents. "There’s no guarantee [the CDC ban] will last until the end of December.
Two other advocacy groups — the Florida Housing Justice Alliance and Connected in Crisis — have written to DeSantis asking him to not only extend the eviction moratorium until the end of the year “at the earliest,” but also to suspend utility disconnections for customers who are past-due on their payments until June 1, 2021. Recently Florida Power & Light announced it would resume service disconnections for past-due customers who cannot pay all that they owe or who haven’t made payment arrangements with the utility.
To help them, FPL is offering up to a $200 one-time credit to customers who pay the balance of their past-due bills in full.
Bertisha Combs, a lead organizer for a Fort Lauderdale grassroots organization, New Florida Majority, said a $200 credit isn’t enough to help consumers who are $800 or more past due because their jobs disappeared and they haven’t been able to secure unemployment benefits or housing assistance through their local government.
Reached by email on Tuesday, DeSantis' press secretary Cody McCloud said a decision on the eviction moratorium has not yet been made.
“This affects many Floridians, and the balancing act of protecting both tenants who need assistance and landlords from bad actors is one the governor does not take lightly,” McCloud said, adding, “A moratorium on utility disconnections is unlikely at this time.”
Armando Alfonso, a Miami-based attorney who argues landlords should be allowed to evict tenants who have the ability to pay but are exploiting the ban, said Tuesday that DeSantis will likely extend it again. “Being that it’s an election year, he’ll probably stay the course,” he said.
The eviction bans don’t absolve renters of their responsibilities to pay all of the rent that they have missed. That means even though the extensions allow tenants to stay in their homes a bit longer, they’ll still face ruined credit and an eviction on their record if they can’t pay their debts.
Ashley Manne, a single mom in Wilton Manors who went on maternity leave in January and hasn’t been able to find work since having her baby, says she’s $4,500 behind on her rent and expects to find an eviction notice on her door on the first day all bans expire. She knows she won’t be the only one.
Without help from the government, she doesn’t know how tenants with past-due rent and no full-time work will be able to pay what they owe and stave off a final order to vacate their apartments. “At least [extending the ban for a month] will give them some time to get situated. But I can’t imagine people having $6,000 just lying around."
The tenants' advocates all called for a long-term solution to the crisis, calling short-term eviction bans a “band aid” that ultimately will leave thousands of tenants owing more money than they will ever be able to repay, and landlords without critical income.
They called on the state and federal governments to create a bailout package that would ensure landlords get paid their rent and tenants don’t lose their homes. Property owners associations, including the National Multifamily Housing Council, have called for federal assistance to landlords, but Congress and the president have not acted.
In July, the National Low Income Housing Coalition said at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance would be needed nationwide to keep low-income renters safely housed during and after the pandemic.
Florida would need $7.1 billion to to help more than 500,000 renters who need help paying rent due between May 2020 and June 2021, the coalition estimates.
Combs said elected representatives need to make it happen. “If they can give big corporations a bailout in the 2008 crisis, they should be able to help renters and landlords this time,” she said.
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