On Thursday, Dec. 31, most Americans will be ringing in a new year—celebrating the end of 2020 and looking forward to 2021 and what could be an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. For millions of Americans, however, turning the page from this year to the next means they may not know where they're going to be living.
Analysts estimate that nearly 12 million tenants have fallen behind on their rent payments because of the economic fallout caused by Covid-19. On average, those tenants owe $5,850 in back rent, and many are at risk of being evicted after a moratorium on evictions dictated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires on Dec. 31.
"I don't know what's going to happen," says Kira Blair, who shares a mobile home in Nokomis with her husband, Corey, and their three young sons.
Blair lost her job at Publix on March 1 and spent five months without work before eventually getting a job in the gift shop at Pop's Sunset Grill. Her husband is a self-employed lawn maintenance worker who has struggled to find clients since the beginning of the pandemic. The couple was unable to pay their rent during the summer, and fell behind by $3,350, plus late fees.
In early September, the family's landlord began eviction proceedings against them. With the help of attorneys from Legal Aid of Manasota, the Blairs were able to delay the eviction, citing the Centers for Disease Control moratorium, but the stress has taken a toll.
"It's been really rough," says Blair. "It's put a strain on my relationships and it's affected me at work. Physically, I'm in a lot of pain due to the stress." She's not sure where her family will end up after the end of the year. "It's killing me inside to know that we have to move," she says.
Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal services to clients in need in Sarasota and Manatee, has seen a spike in the number of people calling to ask for help with housing. The number of clients asking about housing between September and November of this year was 74 percent higher than during the same time period last year.
Evictions have ramifications beyond just forcing a family to move, says Linda Harradine, Legal Aid's executive director. People who have been evicted typically don't have the money needed to pay a security deposit and first and last month's rent on a new place, and potential landlords are wary of renting to people who have been evicted. "It's very difficult to be rehoused when you have an eviction on your record," says Harradine.
Legal Aid has been assisting tenants by filing the paperwork needed to fight evictions and helping renters and landlords negotiate agreements to keep people housed. Most landlords don't want to evict people, says Harradine, but they often have mortgage payments to meet. "The landlords are trying to pay their own bills," she says.
Tenants and property owners have received financial help through the CARES Act. The law, which was passed by the federal government in March, provides money for rent for people who have lost work or income because of the pandemic. In Manatee County, more than $2.5 million in funding for 483 people requesting housing assistance has been approved, and nearly $992,000 has been disbursed. In Sarasota County, roughly 800 households have received assistance with either rent or mortgage payments.
The Community Foundation of Sarasota County also helps those who need help making rent and mortgage payments through its Season of Sharing program. Its housing assistance expenditures rose by 71 percent this summer compared to pre-Covid levels.
James Kushner, an attorney with Gulfcoast Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal services throughout the greater Tampa Bay area, says most landlords are aware of the Centers for Disease Control moratorium and are honoring it, but there is "pent-up demand among landlords to try to evict people." Gulfcoast Legal has seen a 17 percent increase in cases so far this year; the top issue for clients this year has been rental disputes.
According to Kushner, many tenants aren't aware of their rights, and even if they are, they may not know how to navigate the legal process. Some can also be subject to what Kushner calls "informal evictions." "The landlord makes a threat that isn't lawful, but that intimidates the tenant," says Kushner. Because such actions aren't filed with the courts, there's no systematic way to track how common that is. "It's invisible," says Kushner.
The current moratorium may be extended. Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended evictions in Florida, but that moratorium was allowed to expire in October because of the Centers for Disease Control measure. Congress has also debated implementing a moratorium as part of the ongoing negotiations over whether to pass a package of additional Covid-19 relief measures. "I'll believe it when it passes," says Kushner.
Even if the eviction moratorium lasts beyond New Year's Eve, the debt incurred by tenants won't go away. Renters could owe as much as $69.8 billion in back rent by the end of the year. "You have low-income families that may have been out of work for several months," says Harradine. "If you're talking about nine or 10 months of rent they owe, to be able to catch that up all at once, you're asking for something that's not feasible." Landlords could also be at risk of foreclosure.
"There's a real need for some kind of fiscal relief for people on both sides," says Harradine. If help does not arrive, the impact of the eviction crisis will be "devastating," she says.
Caroline, who asked that Sarasota Magazine use a pseudonym and not mention her line of work to avoid being identified and angering her landlord, is self-employed, but her business is only bringing in 30 percent of what it was before the pandemic.
She received $3,000 in assistance through the CARES Act, but her landlord began eviction proceedings. Caroline was able to fight the eviction. Her lease ends in February and she assumes it will not be renewed.
Caroline says she is currently looking for "a more stable job," but hasn't yet found steady work. She has two children, ages 30 and 17; the 17-year-old lives with her. She worries about what will happen after the end of the year.
"When you're rearing children, the bulk of your anxiety comes from not wanting your children to be homeless," says Caroline. "If it were just me, I could probably maintain. The fact that I have children makes it very difficult for me to foresee a bleak future."