As the eviction moratorium expires, South Florida renters are left vulnerable

Many renters, unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be forced from their homes soon.

A federal moratorium on evictions will expire at the end of the month, giving landlords the ability to boot tenants for first time in over a year. Many renters will become vulnerable to homelessness or forced to seek scarce affordable housing, according to housing advocates and nonprofit organizations.

Palm Beach County has 1,194 open eviction cases and Miami Dade County 7,067, according to court clerks. Figures for Broward County were not available.

“With the eviction moratorium expiring so soon, it may be harder to find alternative housing. Another issue is whether they will be able to afford to rent another unit,” said Denita Jones, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach county.

The eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will expire in two weeks after multiple renewals over the past year. The Biden administration has said the moratorium, meant to give states and counties more time to disburse rental assistance money, would not be renewed again.

More than a year into the pandemic, some people have been able to find some sort of income to support themselves, so it’s unclear how deep the needs will be when the moratorium ends, said, Donald Dixon of Salvation Army Florida.

“We can’t say with certainty how deep it will be felt, but it will be felt,” Dixon said.

The moratorium hasn’t prevented evictions entirely. Some landlords have taken advantage of expiring lease or month-to-month leases to move out tenants even during the moratorium to expire. To qualify for protection under the eviction moratorium, renters had to fill out a declaration form and give it to their landlord, though not all tenants were aware of this, lawyers said.

“We see a lot of cases where the tenant didn’t know what to do and didn’t submit their forms to their landlords and they had an issue getting the protections,” said Jefferey Hittlemen, a lawyer with Coast to Coast Legal Aid in South Florida.

A renter from the Riviera Beach area, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his living situation, is among those who came close to eviction after being furloughed from the charter school where he worked. With his income cut in half, he couldn’t make rent payments at his apartment complex for almost seven months.

He applied for the rental assistance program with Palm Beach County last fall but was told they weren’t accepting applications at that time. His apartment complex threatened eviction, but he was able to make back payments with help from the Homeless Prevention Program of Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach, a nonprofit agency that combats homelessness.

“I feel like it’s going to be a lot of people in do-or-die situations, where they are going to be stressed beyond belief,” he said of the ending moratorium.

Where people will go is concerning for housing advocates, who worry that tenants with eviction judgments could find it even harder to rent again. Some landlords, tired of dealing with late rent, might sell their rental properties in an effort to take advantage of the hot seller’s market, said attorney Joseph Hughes of Joseph Hughes Legal in Fort Lauderdale.

“A lot of landlords will be jaded by the experience,” Hughes said.

Rents have spiked in the past year in South Florida, making them unaffordable for many households in the area. Housing advocates are urging affected renters to apply for rental assistance programs through their counties as a way to help alleviate the burden.

“Now is the time to reach out for any assistance with utilities and rent,” said Christina Lucier, vice president of community programs of Lord’s Place.

Palm Beach County’s rental assistance program has 495 applications under review, with 5,011 clients applying, said Taruna Malhotra, assistant director of the Community Services Department. The department may see a slight increase in applications as the moratorium ends, she said.

In Broward County, 257 households have been approved for rental assistance for a little over $3 million. The department expects to see a modest increase in applications to come in as the moratorium expires, said Natalie Beasley, assistant director of the Family Services Administration Division.

Miami Dade’s rental assistance program has 15,000 rental assistance applications, with over 3,750 of them being writ of possession cases.