Tampa Bay legislators introduce bills to stave off looming eviction crisis

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Floridan Hotel and Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News. March 2016.

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A group of state legislators from the Tampa Bay area Monday introduced bills aimed at improving the state’s eviction process. The legislation is an attempt to stave off an anticipated eviction crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As District 63’s Representative Fentrice Driskell tells it notes, Florida’s housing crisis is nothing new.

“Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic Florida already faced an affordable housing crisis. Seven hundred, ninety-five (thousand) six hundred and three low-income households in Florida pay more than 40-percent of their income toward housing.”

That means nearly 800,000 Floridians are cost burdened. Or, living well beyond the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s guideline that families spend no more than 30 percent of income on rent.

“Meaning they may find it difficult to afford other necessities,” Driskell said.” Like food transportation healthcare and clothing.”

Leveling the playing field

The pandemic has only made things worse. Even with loophole-filled moratoriums on eviction, almost 50,000 evictions were filed statewide between March and December last year. And as many moratoriums expire, millions of Floridians still struggling with earning adequate incomes face the threat of possible eviction. About 140 new evictions are filed statewide every day.

William Kilgore started the St. Pete Tenant’s Union to track evictions and advocate on behalf of Florida’s Tenants. He said the legislation is the first right step.

“We are very excited about Senate Bill 412,” Kilgore said. “Florida’s tenant-landlord laws are extremely skewed toward landlords.”

The reforms come as two bills. The first, SB412 and its House companion HB481, remove the requirement that tenants deposit monies owed while contesting an eviction. Those deposits are often in the thousands of dollars. It also directs more evictions toward mediation rather than fast-tracking summary judgments that favor landlords.

“What we’re really trying to do here – to put it very plainly – is to help level the playing field,” Driskell said. “Make it so that people don’t have to pay money that they don’t already, have often times, into the court registry. Try to avoid those default judgments right up front. And eliminate that summary process so we can really hear from the tenants. Try to understand what’s happening and frankly try to keep more people in their homes.”

Driskell added that mediation could also lead to solutions that get landlords paid. She said a payment plan is more likely to see a landlord paid than a lump-sum judgment that struggling tenants wouldn’t be able to satisfy.

Records sealed

And SB926 along with HB657 are sort of backstops. Tenants evicted due to the pandemic would be allowed to petition for their records to be sealed and exempt from public records. That would make it easier to secure other housing as landlords are often hesitant to rent to someone with a prior eviction.

Tim Dutton of United Pinellas said other states, like Minnesota, have had success with similar legislation.

“The outcomes are positive for the tenants in the sense that that particular piece of information is no longer available,” Dutton said. So, the data that exists, prior to this effort in Florida, from other states have ended up being positive.”

The legislation would still allow for traditional background checks including criminal records and credit reports.

The bills were both sponsored in the Senate by Darryl Rouson. HB481 was sponsored by Driskell, while HB657 was sponsored by District 61 Representative Dianne Hart. All three are Democrats, but hope for bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled legislature.

“The landlord does not ask your party affiliation when he begins an eviction process,” Rouson said. “This is not a partisan issue. It’s a human issue. One of decency, one of affordability. One of increasing the opportunity for people to have safe, adequate housing.”

All four bills have been referred to committees ahead of the March 2 start of the 2021 Florida legislative session.

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