I Can’t Pay Rent. Can They Evict Me?
I hope you all are having an enjoyable holiday weekend and staying safe out there. Given the recent report by the Wall Street Journal that nearly a third of all U.S. residential renters did not pay any rent last month, this newsletter will focus on the rights of our Florida renters in this situation.
Governor Ron DeSantis has temporarily suspended evictions in Florida for non-payment of rent. As of the time of the newsletter, this ban is in place through June 2, 2020. We will have to wait and see if it is extended further. While the governor’s executive order does temporarily halt evictions, the order specifically provides that the order does not relieve the tenant of the obligation to pay rent.
If you receive any threats of eviction by your landlord between now and June 2, I would contact a competent consumer attorney right away as this may be illegal under Florida’s Consumer Collection Practices Act, which prohibits any person from threatening to enforce a legal right which does not exist. These cases must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but the point is to quickly discuss with a consumer attorney to determine your rights in your particular situation.
If your landlord has actually filed an eviction lawsuit against you while the governor’s executive order has been in place, this also justifies contacting a consumer attorney right away. You may have a claim against the landlord for doing this during the ban but remember that Florida has very strict procedures a tenant must take to protect their interests in an eviction case. You are typically required to file your answer to the lawsuit within 5 days from the date of you being served, and any defenses not raised in your answer may be waived.
If the executive order lapses on June 2, where does this leave our tenants who have fallen behind on rent due to economic difficulties resulting from this pandemic? Let’s try an example to see how this may play out:
Let’s say John was laid off in March because of the pandemic and remains unemployed. John has missed his April and May rent payments and will miss his June payment as well. His rent is $1,500 per month. Let’s say the governor’s eviction ban lapses on June 2, and now John owes the landlord total rent of $4,500 (for the months of April, May, and June).
John calls his landlord and says “I’m really sorry I haven’t been able to pay rent, but everyone is being impacted by this virus. It wasn’t intentional. I wish I could pay rent, but I’m still unemployed. I’m trying to get work as quickly as possible.”
The landlord responds and says “Well, I sympathize with your situation, John, but you need to remember that I’m carrying a mortgage on this property and I can’t pay that if you don’t pay your rent, so we are all being impacted by this. The eviction ban has been lifted. I need you to catch up on rent or I’m going to serve you formal notice and commence eviction proceedings against you.”
Where does this leave John? What are his rights?
1. John should first remember that there also remains a temporary ban on evictions if the property is secured by a federally-backed mortgage. The news organization ProPublica has released an excellent online tool where you can search your property address to see if the federal ban may apply to your apartment. This online tool can be accessed HERE. If your apartment is covered by the federal ban, then your landlord cannot try to evict you until the federal ban has lapsed. The federal eviction ban was passed went into effect on March 27 and is good for 120 days.
2. If the federal ban does not apply to John’s apartment complex and the Florida eviction ban has already lapsed, John is at risk of an eviction action. One of the most important things I can say in this newsletter is if you are served with an eviction lawsuit, remember that you only have five days in which to file your response with the court and to mail a copy to the attorney for the landlord. If you do not do so or if you file your response late, you may lose the eviction case by default without even being afforded an opportunity to present your defenses in court.
Florida law typically requires a tenant to pay all alleged back rent into the court registry to be permitted to defend an eviction case. Tenants are also required to continue to pay the rent into the registry, as it would normally come due, throughout the course of the eviction proceedings. This means if you cannot place the back rent into the court registry, you may lose the case and be evicted without having your day in court.
Perhaps most importantly, John should consult right away with a competent attorney experienced in representing tenants in landlord-tenant disputes. If John cannot find an attorney to take the case on a contingency-fee basis, he should consider contacting legal aid to apply for free legal assistance. ProPublica has also published a list of the legal aid agencies throughout Florida that assist low-income families with disputes with their landlords. This list can be accessed by clicking HERE.
With approximately a third of Americans unable to pay their monthly rent, this situation will most likely require some government intervention to prevent this from escalating into an even worse economic crisis. This is going to place great pressure on landlords, who then may be unable to carry the mortgage on the rental building and you can see how this would keep having ripple effects throughout our economy. Like many people, I have my own ideas about structuring an appropriate policy response to this crisis, but this newsletter is not the place for those opinions.
Thank you for staying tuned in and I hope this information will be helpful to you, your family, and friends. I hope you have a safe holiday weekend.
Ryan C. Torrens
Disclaimer: The information provided in this email does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available in this email is for general informational purposes only.
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