ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Hairstylist Eric Austin doesn’t know what to do. If he doesn’t pay his apartment complex $1,330 in the next three days, they tell him they’ll move forward with eviction proceedings.
What You Need To Know
- Eric Austin had kept up his rent until August
- Recent change in morarorium oeder applies only to those "adversely affected" by COVID-19
- Evictions are happening now
Austin dug into his savings to keep his bills up-to-date over the past few months during the pandemic. August is the first month he hasn’t been able to pay rent. His apartment complex has been less than forgiving, demanding he pay late fees in addition to his usual $1,200 monthly rent. Austin said they’ll continue to charge him $10 for each day he’s late.
A statewide moratorium in Florida on COVID-19-related evictions and foreclosures is still in effect — but significant language changes in the governor’s most recent executive order gave landlords more leeway to start evicting their tenants.
The three previous times Florida Governor Ron DeSantis extended the moratorium, he waited until the final hours before each executive order was set to expire. But this time, he moved to extend the order several days prior to its expiration date.
“I just felt like it was too good to be true for him to approve it four days ahead,” Austin said. “And then all of a sudden, I read, and now he silently changed it?”
The original order always mentioned COVID-19 as the reason for the moratorium. But the new order is more specific emphasizing that only residential tenants who have been “adversely affected” by the COVID-19 emergency are exempt from eviction.
Additionally, the new order makes a distinction in the type of eviction action it suspends. The original order suspended and tolled any statute providing for an “eviction cause of action.” The new order suspends and tolls any statute providing for “final action at the conclusion of an eviction.”
What that “final action” term actually means is subject to debate. It could refer to the writ of possession, which is the final court order granting a landlord or owner full possession of the property. Or, it could mean the act of law enforcement physically removing someone from his or her home.
“It really depends on the interpretation,” according to real estate attorney Mark Lippman, who said he believes the language in this new order is “hugely different” from the original.
Either way, evictions are happening now. Several Spectrum News renters have written and called in, reporting that they’ve been served notices to pay up within several days or lose their homes. In one case, a renter said they were already evicted from their home. The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it is moving forward with serving writs of possession — notices for eviction — for cases unrelated to COVID-19.
Where does that leave Austin?
“Defeated. Scared. Panicked. Helpless,” he said.
The pandemic caused him to lose his primary job as a traveling hair color educator, teaching in different salons across the country. The Baldwin Park salon he works in shut down temporarily. But Austin was deemed ineligible for unemployment when he applied. Why?
“I have no idea,” Austin said.
He said he guesses it’s because he worked as both an independent contractor and an hourly employee.
“The [unemployment] system doesn't recognize that, you're either one or the other,” Austin said. He wasn’t able to get in touch with Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity to explain the situation.
Now the salon is up and running — but business is way down, and Austin said he thinks the novel coronavirus is to blame. Over the past month, Florida has seen a recent, dramatic spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.
“People are stretching out their appointments more. Just as I don’t have money, other people don't have money,” Austin said. “People are also scared.”
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings announced at a press conference Thursday that he is recommending the county set aside $20 million in CARES Act monies for a new eviction diversion program.
“The program will be designed to assist individuals impacted by the coronavirus who are in imminent danger of being evicted,” Demings said. “It will also be designed to assist landlords.”
More information will be shared at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Demings said.
Spectrum News 13 reached out to Austin’s apartment complex to see what changes they had made to their rent policy given the recent moratorium order, but no one responded.
So what’s next for Austin?
“Good question,” Austin said.
Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.