JACKSONVILLE, Fla — A statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in late July has not stopped a number of eviction proceedings from moving forward in Duval County.
Before July 29, evictions and foreclosures in Florida were largely frozen in place, with different courts across the state further enforcing the ban with added local protections.
"They did what they were supposed to do and they did stop evictions," said Mary DeVries, Managing Attorney of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, a nonprofit that helps tenants with legal assistance. "We got a lot of calls but not necessarily a lot of evictions because there were no evictions going on."
The expiration of the eviction moratorium was looming on Aug. 1. On that day in late July, though, the governor extended the moratorium while changing its wording.
Now, the wording of the new order, which expires Sept. 1, only stops final actions in eviction proceedings in which a tenant can prove non-payment of rent is due to losses from coronavirus.
"The burden is shifted to the tenant to raise that as an issue, whereas prior moratoriums stopped the lawsuits from being filed in the first place," DeVries said.
Due to the change, eviction proceedings have widely received a green light to move forward. For tenants with a case against them dealing with rent non-payment before COVID-19, evictions can be completed.
"Before, there were no evictions allowed. Period. It didn't matter if you defaulted before COVID," said Tampa-area attorney Ryan Torrens, who specializes in foreclosures and consumer defense. "[Tenants] can try to submit documentation to the court and ask for a stay of eviction. But if their case didn't come about because of COVID, meaning their case was filed before COVID, they're probably gonna have a pretty small chance on that."
In Duval County, records show 219 eviction filings in court during the first week of August alone. On Monday, Aug. 3, nearly 100 cases were filed, marking the start of the first full business week since the moratorium was limited.
DeVries said it will take time to determine a trend in filings, but more than 200 in a week is hovering at pre-pandemic levels. She said current eviction rates have quadrupled based on how many cases had been filed during the prior moratoriums.
"As compared to prior months, there were between 30 and 50 cases filed the entire month, and those were not non-payment evictions," DeVries said.
Along with services for tenants, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid offers assistance in cases ranging from immigration to domestic violence to employment law. DeVries said the non-profit has seen a 75 percent increase in applications for its services across all fields since the start of the pandemic.
"I haven't seen a situation where this many families have been at risk for eviction in quite a long time," she said.
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has established an online tool that allows tenants to input their case information and automatically generates documents needed to respond in court. According to state law, a response has to be filed within five business days after being served.
Another aspect of Florida's tenant laws requires tenants to pay the rent money owed into the court registry in order to defend themselves, Torrens said.
"If you don't file that response and put the money in the registry within that period, you lose automatically," he said.
For tenants who cannot afford to put the money in the registry, Torrens suggested stating that in the response and noting if the lack of ability to pay is related to Coronavirus.
"Have it notarized, you file it with the clerk, mail a copy to the attorney for the landlord," Torrens said. "And ask the judge to actually stop the proceedings. Give them your answer and request a stay. Call the judge's office, and request a hearing on your response and request for stay. Ask for a telephonic or video hearing."
Torrens said he wants to see Governor DeSantis and state leadership establish a statewide mandatory mediation program in eviction cases, or to repurpose CARES Act funding.
"The landlord has an interest at stake that could trickle through the statewide economy. Tenants are at risk of losing their homes. We really need a holistic type of solution," he said. "The Governor has opened the flood gates and basically turned on the green light to the evictions, which compounds problems."