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No money in Broward budget for tenant right to counsel program, despite activists pleas

Berbeth Foster of the Community Justice Project urges Broward County Commissioners during a budget hearing on Tuesday, September 19, 2023, to fund a pilot program to provide legal assistance to renters facing eviction. Commissioners turned down their request.
Screenshot of stream of county meeting
Broward County
Berbeth Foster of the Community Justice Project speaks to Broward County Commissioners during a budget hearing on Tuesday, September 19, 2023.

After a successful eviction-prevention program received millions of dollars from Miami-Dade County's budget last year, Broward activists and lawyers sought to bring similar funding to their county.

It didn't happen.

Broward County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve a $8.6 billion dollar budget — without, however, allocating any funds to a proposed tenant right to counsel pilot program.

Commissioners told the lawyers and activists that their request came too late in the budgeting process.

The county does fund a free legal aid organization, and this year gave a historic $23 million to affordable housing projects, but activists say it isn't enough as skyrocketing rents are forcing people out of their apartments. Most with no legal assistance as they navigate the fast and confusing eviction process.

"Tenant right to counsel is a lifeline for many members in this community," said Berbeth Foster, an attorney with the Community Justice Project, one of the organizations pushing for the funds. "If the timing of this request is the only reason that some commissioners here would not vote for this budget allocation we would ask that ... you consider that you have the power to change the process."

Most Broward renters 'cost-burdened'

A 2022 report on housing affordability in Broward County by the FIU Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Centerfound that about 62% of renter households are categorized as cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of income on rent and utilities. Broward renters pay so much that the county is among the most unaffordable places to live in the country.

“Renter households are the most vulnerable due to generally lower household incomes, low wage employment, and excessive cost-burden levels,” according to the report.

The report also found that Broward County had lost an average of 9,602 affordable renter units annually over the past five years through market appreciation.

The overall average rent in Broward County at the end of 2021 was $2,503. A year later, rents ranged from $2,109 for an efficiency apartment to $3,298 for a three-bedroom unit.

An April 2022 review by Florida Atlantic University of 107 major real estate markets lists Southeast Florida — Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties — found rental costs has soared 31.7%.

Free legal aid helps 

Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida is one of the organizations pushing Broward commissioners for money to test a “tenant’s right to counsel" program. Through their work over the past two decades, they've helped over 45,000 people with free legal representation.

Toni is one of them. She’s a senior citizen who asked to be identified by only her first name.

She works full-time and during the pandemic was logging 20 hours of overtime a week to make rent at her Fort Lauderdale apartment. In 2020, she caught COVID-19 and had to miss work, which set her back on rent payments.

“They did what they normally do when your rent is not in by the 10th of a month, they gave me a three-day notice…and I panicked,” she said.

She scoured the internet for resources and got referred to a few different websites but found the legal jargon hard to understand. Then she called Coast to Coast Legal Aid. They explained the eviction moratorium that was in place and helped her get financial aid for her rent.

Months later, she received another eviction notice — with its daunting bright red lettering — was stuck to her door.

Toni wanted to leave in good standing — without an eviction record on her credit report. Her lawyer at Coast to Coast, Jeffrey Hittleman helped her through the legal process

But Toni’s case is rare. More than 95% of people threatened with eviction have no legal representation, according to data kept by Coast to Coast.

Navigating eviction court without legal guidance is challenging.

One option is a settlement with the landlord, which can be a repayment plan or move-out agreement. If the tenant wants to take the case to court there are several hurdles: a tight deadline, money that has to be deposited into a court registry, as well as a long list of other court instructions.

“If they make a misstep on one, then they could have an eviction judgment entered against them,” Hittleman said, noting that after a judgment is entered, the police get involved.

“The sheriff's office comes out and puts a 24-hour notice on the tenant's door,” he said.

County money could help more people

Money from the county would allow Coast to Coast to hire more lawyers to help with tenant cases. They currently have about 25 attorneys, and only five that work on eviction cases.

“The reality is we have limited resources and we just don't have the resources to help everyone that we want to help … every single day we come in and the voicemail is full with new people asking for help with their legal issues,” Hittleman said.

Coast to Coast predicts there will be about 18,000 eviction cases filed in Broward County this year. So far, only 3% of tenants have had legal representation in those cases. Landlords almost always do.

Toni stayed at a new apartment for a few months, still working 20 hours of overtime a week to pay rent. Eventually, she saved up enough to be able to purchase her own condo.

“In Toni's case, if she'd had a recent eviction judgment on her record, it would have made it much harder to find any housing, let alone buy a house of her own,” Hittleman said.

Not a big ask, but a little late

The power of free legal services for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it is why Bertisha Combs was, and still is, pushing county commissioners to allocate $2.7 million. She’s the South Florida Regional Director with Florida Rising, a statewide voting rights and grassroots organizing group.

Under the program, Florida Rising would be in charge of outreach — going through eviction notices and knocking on the doors of those being evicted to offer them legal services.

Combs met with as many county commissioners as she could before the budget hearings to gain support for the program. She pitched the program to Commissioners Michael Udine, Hazelle Rogers, and Robert McKinzie and the staff of Nan Rich, Beam Furr,and Tim Ryan.

READ MORE: Broward approves $8.6 billion budget with more for transportation, affordable housing

“They've all said that they support it. They believe in it, but not many have said, ‘I'll be the one to step up and sponsor it,’ so that's been disheartening,” she said.

Combs and others, including Foster and Hittleman, attended both of the county’s September budget hearings to push for funding.

The county funds a separate but similar legal organization — Legal Aid Service of Broward County — but they don’t handle eviction cases for seniors. Lawyers at Coast to Coast handle such cases and arefunded largely by grants.

Hittleman clarified the difference between the two agencies during Tuesday’s budget hearing, noting that the new tenant right-to-counsel program would serve anyone facing eviction.

The county also allocated a historic amount — just over $23 million — to affordable housing projects for the next fiscal year. Still, the money will be used to build new units, which can take years.

Some commissioners, while in support of funding those facing eviction, said the request needed to be made earlier in the year, and not during budget hearings.

“I think we missed the boat for this budget period, but I do encourage you to… see how you can participate next year,” said Commissioner McKinzie, voicing tempered support for the group. McKinzie, a landlord, along with Commissioner Mark Bogen worried that legal representation for tenants facing eviction could hurt landlords.

Commissioners Rich, Rogers, and Udine said they would support the program in next year’s budget.

Miami-Dade program

The Broward program is modeled after a successful Eviction Diversion Pilot Program funded by Miami-Dade County.

“It's a game changer,” said Jeffrey Hearne, the Chief Advocacy Officer atLegal Services of Greater Miami. “If a tenant has a lawyer by their side, the results are going to be better.”

He says the number of tenant clients they’ve been able to help has more than doubled since the county funded their program.

“This is allowing us to really expand our reach and ensure that we can provide more representation to individuals in all types of housing,” he said.

Since the program began, Legal Services of Greater Miami has hired more lawyers and offered assistance to more than 450 families in Miami-Dade.

Activists from Florida Rising and the Community Justice Project were optimistic after Tuesday’s final budget hearing. They told WLRN they would continue to push to get the program funded, possibly through an amendment to this year's budget.

“Despite failing to obtain a budget allocation last night, most of the commissioners demonstrated an understanding for the need and importance of tenants receiving legal representation in eviction proceedings," said Foster of Community Justice Project. "Those sentiments coupled with their expressed commitment to address the housing crisis facing Broward County leaves me very hopeful that we will see a pilot Tenant Right to Counsel in our county very soon.”

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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