After July 31, Deltona resident Brian Curbow isn’t sure where he’s going to live.
When Curbow was unemployed for a time in 2020, paying the bills wasn’t easy, and sometimes it wasn’t possible.
When the company that owns his Deltona home filed for an eviction, the only thing that kept Curbow, his wife, their goddaughter and the family dogs in place was the moratorium on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to prevent a spike in homelessness amid widespread unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally issued on Sept. 4, 2020, the CDC’s moratorium prevented landlords from evicting tenants who were unable to pay rent because they were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Evictions could still be filed with the court, but they wouldn’t move forward if the tenant proved pandemic-related distress.
The moratorium extended beyond its original Dec. 31, 2020, expiration date, but it’s now set to expire July 31, putting some West Volusia residents’ housing in jeopardy.
“It’s hard,” Curbow told The Beacon. “You go to work every day, and all you can think about is, ‘Gee, we’ve got another month of this. After this month, where are we going to go?’”
Curbow isn’t alone. Since Jan. 1, tenants have filed COVID-19 affidavits to stall more than 50 eviction cases in Volusia County.
Of those 50, some have had the affidavit overturned, but others are relying on the affidavit to stay put as the bills pile up.
More affidavits filed earlier are holding up an unknown number of evictions. There is no central database of cases, so the total number is unknown. Further, some landlords may have chosen not to file for eviction while the CDC moratorium is in effect.
In short, no one really knows what to expect when the moratorium expires in a few days.
“We’re fully preparing for a crisis Aug. 1,” Jeffrey Hussey of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida told The Beacon.
Confusion over the moratorium has contributed to the chaos.
The process has been, attorney Heather Caeners said, in a word, difficult. Caeners has been representing landlords in West Volusia for more than 15 years.
“The courts have been erring on the side of caution even if they haven’t filed claims,” she said. “They’re aware that they have to make specific claims in order to evoke the moratorium.”
The CDC moratorium does not protect tenants by itself. For a tenant to utilize the stay, the tenant must have filed a specific form citing their financial hardship related to the pandemic. But, Caeners said, not everyone knew this at the outset or did their homework to figure it out, so many landlords didn’t make any moves for fear of wasting time and legal fees.
Feelings about the moratorium have been mixed. The situation is complicated.
For some, the moratorium is the only defense against homelessness amid a global pandemic and a shortage of available housing.
For others, including landlords, the moratorium has been a block to money they need to maintain their property and pay their own bills.
Hussey, director of public interest and litigation for Community Legal Services, is preparing for the worst.
“Our concern is the potential mass number of people who could be homeless in a short amount of time. Florida has a real problem with affordable housing; the inventory’s just not there,” he said. “The last study I saw was that at the end of 2020, at least 20 percent of Floridians were behind in their rent payments. That’s a lot of people. If they don’t take advantage of the emergency rental programs, they’re going to lose their housing.”
Emergency rental programs exist to help tenants who fear they may not be able to afford their rent, utilities or other costs.
One such program is OUR Florida, operated by the Florida Department of Children and Families. This program, which Curbow told The Beacon he applied to, may be his saving grace for staying put and repaying overdue expenses.
So, while some help is available, organizations like The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia are still bracing for an impact.
Concerns about how many people will need rapid rehousing after July 31 has The Neighborhood Center’s housing director, Josh Vizcaino, on edge. In addition to handling the workload that may appear, Vizcaino fears that the impact of this moratorium will affect tenant-landlord relationships down the road, especially since not everyone has been honest.
“You’re dealing with a mixture of clientele. You have people who needed the help — they lost their job — and you have other people who took full advantage and made us look bad,” he said. “When the government says you don’t have to pay your rent if you’ve been affected by COVID, it throws the responsibility out the window.”
But really, attorney Caeners asked, can you blame landlords? Landlords are business owners, too.
“They’re just like restaurant owners — they want to make good food, and they want people to pay for it,” Caeners said.
From property owners and managers who have decided to wash their hands of renting, to those who are simply not interested in properly repairing a property to rent, Caeners believes one effect of the COVID-19 crisis will be fewer rentable properties.
“I have a property manager who handles about 25 individual homes in the area; she does it for various different corporations,” Caeners said. “They’re all getting rid of it. Those places are being sold to investors who are rehabbing and reselling to homeowners.”
That’s a fear Lee Steinhauer, government affairs and legal counsel for the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando, shares.
He said, “I think you’ll see the supply of housing restricted because of the moratorium, which is not a good consequence, because the less rental housing you have, the more rental housing is going to be in terms of how much rent people are going to have to pay.”
With an already limited supply of affordable homes in West Volusia, further reducing the number of rentals could be catastrophic, Hussey said.
“That could be the next problem we see — the slumlords come out, and they’re renting to desperate people, houses and apartments that no people should live in.”
One day at a time
To make ends meet before finding steady employment in April 2021, Curbow worked as a delivery driver for the food-delivery service Postmates. With everyone stuck at home, at least plenty of people were ordering food, he said.
Now, even with steadier employment, he’s still finding it hard to stay on top of the bills.
“I’m just worried. A couple of weeks into August if I get a knock on the door from the Sheriff’s Office, what do I do? I can’t fight it and say this is the first time I’ve missed my rent, because, obviously, it’s not,” Curbow said. “I’m not making the income I was making when I signed the lease. I was making $45,000 three years ago, but now I’m lucky if I’m making $25,000. It’s just six of one, a half a dozen of the other.”
It’s not just Curbow.
Jason Lebron lives in Orange City. He stayed employed through the height of the pandemic in 2020, but lost his job in March 2021. Lebron said he applied for unemployment the same week he was laid off, but has yet to receive his money.
“There’s money that’s owed to me,” he said. “I can take myself out of this debt if I can just get what’s owed.”
And, sure, plenty of people are hiring, Lebron said, but he’s still had a hard time making ends meet.
“Everybody wants to pay part time; it’s hard to maintain these bills on a part-time salary,” he said. “I’ve been looking, applying; it’s very hard out here.”
Like Curbow, Lebron said the only thing that has kept him in place has been the CDC moratorium on evictions. When his landlord filed to evict, he was able to stay put.
“I’m only here through the CDC,” he said. “I can’t imagine how many people like me are going through the same situation.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
3,069 — The number of evictions in 2019 in Volusia County
2,015 — The number of evictions in 2020 in Volusia County
2019, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida’s Director of Public Interest and Litigation Jeffrey Hussey explained, was a pretty average year for evictions. With 2020 so much lower due to the moratorium on evictions, Hussey worries that come Monday, Aug. 2, the eviction moratorium’s expiration will bring about a steep increase in evictions in a short period of time as landlords complete evictions they’ve waited to carry out.
— Data from Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida
But what’s next?
The moratorium has been hard on everyone, and Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida’s Hussey will be the first to admit that.
“I’ll be the first to acknowledge the moratorium is a one-way street,” Hussey said. “I do feel for the smaller landlords who maybe bought a house as an investment property that’s going to fund their retirement, and here they haven’t gotten a rent payment in a year and they’re still paying mortgage and upkeep.”
And if you ask Caeners, the approach was questionable from the outset.
“I think both parties are being punished by poorly drafted information. It was crafted by a government agency rather than a legislative body that goes through the process of weeding out these things and making sure everyone’s rights are protected,” she said. “It will be interesting to see the flood of evictions that come in, but I think most landlords are going to try to work it out with their tenants.”
Because, she said, evictions are expensive, for one thing. Also, she said, most landlords want to work things out.
“They’d rather have people live there forever, pay their rent and everything is fantastic,” Caeners said. “Most of the time, if the tenant is communicating, that’s the best way to probably avoid an influx of evictions.”
Lee Steinhauer of the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando felt similarly.
“Throughout the process, everyone’s been kind of trying to ensure this doesn’t happen,” he said. “Just hearing from housing providers throughout this process, many of them will tell you they’ve been trying to work with their residents, help them get rental assistance. It’s in their interest just as much as it’s in the renters’ interest.”
To the fear of lasting fallout between tenants and landlords, Vizcaino has already started to see it, he said. Of 15 property managers the organization works with, three have shifted their yearly leases to monthly leases, so tenants who don’t pay can be moved out more quickly.
To put it bluntly, Caeners said, “It’s hard to expect a landlord who isn’t getting paid to go in there and fix the toilet when they stuff something down the toilet.”
She continued, “All of those things cost money.”
There are no clear-cut solutions, Hussey said. Even extending the moratorium, he said, would be a blanket fix to a much deeper problem.
“The question is, where are these people going to go?” he asked. “I don’t have that answer for you.”
What can you do?
These are some of the options available to individuals worried about losing their housing:
Volusia County emergency rental assistance — Volusia County’s emergency rental assistance program can provide households up to six months of assistance for rent and utility payments. All renters earning an income at or below 80 percent of the area median income are eligible to apply. Applications for the next round of assistance opened July 20. Visit www.Volusia.org/era.
OUR Florida — OUR Florida is a program operated by the Florida Department of Children and Families offering emergency rental assistance. All renters earning an income at or below 80 percent of the area median income are eligible to apply for assistance. For more information, visit OUR Florida’s website at https://www.ourflorida.com/.
The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia — The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, based in DeLand, has a number of resources available for individuals and families worried about their housing, from rapid rehousing assistance to rental assistance. For more information, visit their website, www.neighborhoodcenterwv.org, or call their offices at 386-734-8120.
Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida — Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida is a legal aid organization that provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals. Director of Public Interest and Litigation Jeffrey Hussey urged people fearing for their housing situations to call 800-405-1417 or go online to www.clsmf.org. As Hussey said, “We’re free, free, free.”