TAMPA, Fla. — As lawmakers in Tallahassee battle the state’s insurance crisis, what’s not on the special agenda this week — Florida’s rapidly intensifying affordable housing crisis.
With this crisis, comes growing concerns the end to the state’s rental assistance program, known as "Our Florida,” will be swiftly followed by an increase in new eviction filings.
Mathilda Dameus of Palm Beach County is still recovering from her eviction.
In November, her landlord filed an eviction against her after claiming she owed thousands of dollars in back rent.
While Dameus claims her landlord didn’t tell her she owed money for missing weeks until a year after she moved in, Dameus was approved for funding help from "Our Florida." The program paid her landlord $13,000 for back rent and future payments.
Still, Dameus was evicted, leaving the single mom living with the scar of an eviction for the next seven years.
“When another landlord or another owner sees that you have an eviction on your record, it's basically like you're a black sheep. It’s like, no, I don't want to deal with you," she said. "I don't care what the story is."
The issues caused by eviction filings are not new. However, more attention has been given since the fall-out from the COVID pandemic has left more Floridians facing eviction for the first time.
In addition, rising rents are making it that much harder for evicted renters to move on from those cases.
“As much as we want landlords, obviously, to get their rent and to continue to maintain units, tenants need housing as well. And so if COVID-19 is a factor in keeping these evictions on the record, I would say that it is unfair,” Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County attorney Amy Pettway said
Pettway represented Dameus and is currently representing other clients facing eviction for the first time. She believes some evicted tenants should be able to get their evictions sealed from the public when cases are settled or dismissed and landlords are made whole.
“Right now, what we're seeing is that if the eviction is there, and a tenant is applying for another house or another unit, the landlord automatically looks at that eviction and says, 'Oh you know, you don't qualify,'” Pettway said.
While individual judges can agree to expunge a tenant’s eviction, most judges don’t because proving it’s necessary is a tough burden for tenants to meet.
“The damage is done when the filing is done,” Bay Area Legal Services attorney Tim Difiore said.
His organization in Tampa Bay has also been deluged with renters facing evictions for the first time and the repercussions that come with it, even when a case is settled or dismissed.
“It’s the equivalent to being arrested or charged for something but not convicted,” he said. “That’s how a landlord can potentially view that.”
Earlier this year, a bill introduced would have allowed certain renters dealing with first time evictions to keep their eviction hidden from the public. While the bill passed the House, it went nowhere in the Senate.
It’s unknown just how many evictions have been filed in Florida. There is no single database that keeps track of the information. It is also unknown how many of these filing end up being settled or dismissed.
“We believe it's critical for housing providers to have access to a variety of information when evaluating a potential resident,” said Director of Government Affairs for Florida’s Apartment Association Amanda White said.
White disputes common beliefs that landlords look at a single filing as reason to turn a potential new client away.
“A mere filing for an eviction is typically not something that would cause concern," she said "The housing provider is really looking for repeat filings, for example, or instances where the resident owes a substantial amount of money to the previous housing providers."
White also said landlords continue to working with renters in securing housing help and evictions are always the “last resort.”
Dameus has found a new place of her own but not first without paying more to move in and move on.
“You rob Peter to pay Paul to make sure that Paul gets paid so you can move in," she said. "It just seems unnecessary."
Tenants struggling to pay rent are advised to immediately apply for help. While the “Our Florida” program has ended, many local governments are still offering rental assistance programs.