As the early effects of the pandemic roiled the nation, a wave of protections was thrown over the country's 110 million renters.
"Affordable housing was a challenge even before the pandemic," said Jeffrey Hearne, director of Miami Law's Tenants' Rights Clinic. "In Miami-Dade, almost 50% of our population are renters. The HUD-set fair-market average rent here is $1,625 for a two-bedroom. To pay for that and make it affordable at 30% of your income, that would require an hourly rate of $31.25. A lot of the jobs out there in our economy don't meet that, so you already had people struggling to get by before March. We typically had 17,000 evictions in Miami-Dade County annually."
The Tenants' Rights Clinic, which is based at Legal Services of Greater Miami, is designed to give law students the opportunity to represent low-income tenants in litigation and administrative hearings. In previous semesters, the clinic students primarily represented tenants living in federally subsidized housing. This year, however, the students will focus on representing tenants impacted by the pandemic, living in private, unsubsidized housing, and facing eviction for non-payment of rent.
Representing tenants for non-payment of rent is challenging under Florida law. "In order for a tenant to defend an eviction, they have to deposit all past due rent into the court, or they lose automatically," said Hearne, "without a hearing, even if they have a defense for the eviction. It is going to be a real problem as we go forward to deal with the consequences of the pandemic."
Hearne has been practicing landlord-tenant law for two decades and said that it is rock stable. Until now. "The law has changed, almost monthly, since the beginning of COVID-19 spread," he says. "More has changed in the last eight months than in the previous 20 years."
For starters, in one of the first such orders in the United States, on March 12, the Miami-Dade mayor ordered the police department to stop executing on eviction orders. Next up was the federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill that sent every adult $1,200, $600 monthly for the unemployed, and included a moratorium on evictions on properties that receive a federal subsidy or have federally-backed mortgages. Almost simultaneously, the Florida governor entered an executive order suspending all non-payment of rent evictions, which kept getting extended through the summer.
"Those measures got us through late August," said Hearne. "And it was an economic approach because they realized that people didn't have money." In September, shortly after the CARES Act protections ended, the CDC mandated a nationwide moratorium through the end of the year as a public health measure.
"When people are evicted, they start moving around, staying with relatives or friends or homeless shelters," said Hearne. "Not the way to stop the spread of the disease."
The Miami-Dade moratorium prohibiting the police from executing on eviction orders remains in effect for evictions filed after March 12, but it's anyone's guess what lies ahead. The clinic is bracing for an onslaught of cases when the clinic ramps up for the Spring semester.
"Whenever the moratoriums are lifted," said Hearne, "there is going to be a massive backlog of cases. There have been 5,200 evictions filed since March in the county.”
Hearne says that the plan when the students return to the clinic will be to deal with the "COVID" evictions. "The numbers are huge," he said. " Over just the past three or four weeks [at Legal Services], our intake numbers are skyrocketing – 70 to 80 tenants a week coming in for legal assistance.
The spring clinic students will be handling these cases, where the advocacy doesn't always happen in the courtroom. Likely, more than ever before, the students will be looking for alternative resolutions with the landlords, "maybe asking for more time to relocate or helping the tenant find rental assistance, if it is available. Sadly, for some tenants, it might just be legal advice."