The 1.7 million Floridians who've been receiving federal unemployment benefits through the CARES ACT will get their last check this weekend. The Senate is currently debating a second round of stimulus funding in the HEROES Act, but it’s unclear what unemployment benefits it would include and whether the legislation will pass. This comes as we approach August 1st and the federal and statewide moratorium on evictions will be ending. In months past, Governor Ron DeSantis has waited till the final hours before extending the moratorium.
This leaves hundreds of thousands of Floridians wondering whether they need to find a new place to live or will be able to stay put. “Looking at it from a statewide basis, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel found 1.2 million households that are having difficulty paying the rent and more than 800,000 could be evicted in the next four months,” said Sean Rowley Tenant’s Rights Advocacy Director for Legal Services of Greater Miami. The situation is also complicated for landlords, who’ve been required to pay for utilities and bills on their properties while tenants are protected under the moratorium.
“Whether they are a large commercial complex that still has to pay a mortgage or a mom and pop owning one property or a duplex, for a lot of people that’s their retirement plan,” said Kevin Fabrikant, attorney with Fabrikant and Associates. His firm in Broward County has represented landlords and commercial properties in South Florida for decades. We spoke with Fabrikant and Rowley on Sundial about legal protections for both landlords and tenants as the moratorium on evictions is set to expire.
WLRN: As we approach the end of the month and rent and utility bills are due. What are some of the questions that you're hearing from tenants, what are their biggest concerns?
ROWLEY: Well, I mean, the biggest concern is what you would expect is that people who don't have the money to pay their rent and what are their rights and what protections they have. Until now, the eviction moratoriums have been there. There are two types of eviction moratoriums in play. There's the statewide eviction moratorium and then there's the moratorium covered under the federal CARES Act, which applies to about 25 to 30 percent of renters in the United States. So outside of the moratoriums, I mean, evictions are going to start in August. And that's the biggest concern on people's minds, is how are they going to pay the rent and what are their rights if they don't have the rent to pay?
We heard from Beth in Key West, she emailed us. "We're senior citizens on a small fixed income. We rent an apartment that's attached to our home. All utilities are included in the rent. Our tenant has not paid rent since January. We finally started eviction proceedings prior to the governor's moratorium. This tenant has returned to work for a month now and previously received unemployment. We must pay for his electric, air conditioning, hot water and Wi-Fi. We cannot afford to keep a free roof over his head. We are using up our meager savings. Do we have any recourse?" Kevin, this is a mom and pop situation. What is their recourse?
FABRIKANT: Right. Well, that really brings in a lot of issues. For example, this is a residential situation and under the law, the landlord isn't supposed to do anything to interfere with the utilities for the property. So, where you have a situation where the rent includes utilities and the landlord's not receiving any income, but yet still has to pay for the utilities. The landlord is in a very difficult position because, well, like FPL, for example, has been great and they've been allowing people to defer bills and not disconnecting service. I think that's coming to an end, where a lot of these utility companies are saying you need to get some bills paid. So people are being forced to pay bills and going wherever they can to get money. And it's not always coming or often it's not coming right now from tenants. So the landlord still has to pay those utilities or risk having the tenant basically seek damages against the landlord.
And she said they've been paying for the utilities and the Wi-Fi. They've had a free roof over this person's head. But again, what's their recourse?
FABRIKANT: Well, this moratorium on evictions really only stops evictions based on not paying rent. So, for example, at our firm, we have been able to proceed with evictions over the past couple of months. It is not that all evictions have come to a complete halt. We have been proceeding with, for example, non renewal evictions. If the lease expired and its a month, month tenant or it's a situation where it's a verbal agreement, we have been serving those notices and those landlords have been able to proceed with eviction.
What are the similarities that you're seeing with what happened during the 2008 financial crisis and what we might be facing real soon?
ROWLEY: Well, what I anticipate the similarities are going to be once the moratorium ends, is going to be an economy and a court system that's completely overburdened with cases. So, I mean, one of the fears I have is that courts may be so overburdened with cases that they're going to try to rush through them and in a way that could run roughshod over people's due process rights. If they are able to raise defenses and have their defenses heard in front of a judge. I think for tenants it very well could be worse for tenants. It probably will be in terms of access to the courts because the deck is already stacked against them in terms of the rent deposit statute and their ability to have a hearing.
And Kevin, what about landlords? Will it be as bad as what we saw in 2008?
FABRIKANT: No, I think it'll be better. I think that there are better protections out there and that we learned a lot from that crisis, I don't think it will be as bad. I think that courts are going to push a lot of mediations and push a lot of opportunities for people to resolve things. And if we do it by Zoom, which is the way it's been going lately, more can happen in a shorter period of time rather than having everybody go to the courthouse and wait.