Pandemic prompts St. Pete residents to call for rent relief, eviction moratorium during Friday rally

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A group of St. Petersburg residents have organized to fight back against a rising wave of evictions, another crisis brought during the COVID-19 pandemic. A rally is scheduled Friday to call for rent relief and extension of eviction moratoriums while the pandemic persists.

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Mel Meyer’s year was supposed to go very, very differently.

“New life,” she said.

New life

Meyer moved to Clearwater from Ocala for an account manager position with tech company KnowBe4 in March. She spent more than 20 years as a stay-at-home mom, but going through a divorce, she was excited for a new life and new prospects in a new city.

Then, came COVID.

“I moved to Clearwater in March for a job that I lost at the end of March,” she said.

Nine months later, Meyer is one of the thousands of Pinellas County residents facing eviction despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and one of the worst economic crises in the nation’s history.

That’s why William Kilgore started the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.

“The main goal is to try and get tenants organized,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is compile tenant resources like free legal resources and financial resources. Especially right now with the eviction crisis and all the COVID stuff.”

Memento Moratorium

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of unemployment claims in Florida alone. And with the end of a $600 unemployment bonus over the summer, those who can access unemployment benefits only get $275 a week.

Florida had an eviction moratorium that expired Oct. 1. And though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an eviction moratorium that lasts through this month, its rife with loopholes and sometimes looked over by judges who question its constitutionality.

“The moratorium is very limited,” Kilgore said. “(It) only covers folks who are unable to make rent due to COVID or have been financially impacted by COVID and are unable to make rent. So there’s actually been plenty of loopholes for landlords to kick people out.”

Meyer said the last rent payment she was able to make was in June. Since then, she’s submitted a required CDC form to her landlord. The company filed an eviction stating that she violated her lease by having someone else live with her.

She’s had a tough time defending that in court.

“How do you prove a negative?” She said. “Like, I don’t have anyone else living here.”

Pinellas County has more than 1,700 open evictions filed since January, including more than 100 filed in the last week.

Calling for help

The St. Petersburg Tenants Union is rallying outside of St. Pete’s downtown courthouse on the 500 block of First Avenue North Friday, Dec. 18 at 4 p.m. The organization is asking for an enhancement and extension of the eviction moratorium as well as rent relief so landlords get paid and residents don’t wind up in debt or out of options once the pandemic is over.

Otherwise, Meyer said, an economic climate already rife with financial inequities will only show further disparities.

“If you didn’t get ahead when there was getting ahead to be gotten,” she said, “you’re so far behind the eight-ball that you can’t get caught up.”