ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —  Single mom Anas Aldarraji said she isn’t sure what’s next for her family of three, but Orange County’s brand-new eviction diversion program might be their only hope.

What You Need To Know

  • Orange County's eviction diversion program could help 5,000-8,000 residents

  • The county has earmarked $20 million for thr ptogrsm

  • Half of funds are set aside for very-low income renters

  • Evictions are currently permitted to go through in Orange County

The program, which opened for applications Tuesday, could help 5,000-8,000 Orange County renters who face an imminent eviction threat, according to Mayor Jerry Demings.  The program is geared toward the most vulnerable residents, with more than half of the $20 million funding earmarked for very-low income renters.

Aldarraji, whose first language is Arabic, applied for the program Tuesday with the help of her 18-year-old son, Youssef Alkhafeel. Aldarraji last week received a five-day notice to pay the past-due rent or be evicted. She said she and her 20-year-old daughter went to the court, where she submitted in writing the reasons why she should not be evicted.

Those reasons in a nutshell: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's not our fault. This is a pandemic for the United States,” Aldarraji said.

She said her daughter, who previously provided most of the family’s income, lost her job at the Orlando International Airport because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in significantly less air travel.  Aldarraji’s son, who’d also been working there for just more than a month, lost his job, too. 

Aldarraji said she used to tutor children but lost all her clients because of COVID-19.

“It's a mess, it's a mess,” Aldarraji said. “It's not only me. Because when I went to the court, I saw many people.”

Senior Housing and Consumer Attorney Jamos Mobley with the Legal Aid Society of Central Florida said attorneys have been hearing from many residents who are being served with eviction notices.

 “We have a lot of scared people,” Mobley said. “They heard that we extended the moratorium in Florida, and I think that gave them a measure of relief. But when we really unpack the language of that moratorium, it is not a moratorium.”

The current, “limited extension” of the governor’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures is in effect until Sept. 1. But the language in this version of the moratorium is broader than the original order Florida Governor Ron DeSantis passed in April —  leaving much of the law’s interpretation up to different jurisdictions across the state. 

 “It’s led to mass confusion,” Mobley said. “Everybody’s confused, afraid.”

In Orange County, Mobley said all evictions are being permitted to go through. The onus is on the affected resident to answer the court order —  like Aldarraji did —  within the time frame specified. Doing so won’t automatically guarantee the tenant protection under the moratorium but will at least initiate the process for a hearing, when a judge will examine the tenant’s case and decide whether or not they have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 and should be protected.

Low-income and minority renters like Aldarraji have had eviction cases filed against them at a higher rate during the pandemic, a recent Center For Public Integrity analysis found. Florida is one of the states where the most eviction cases have been filed since late March. 

“Thank God I have some English and I read,” Aldarraji said when describing her experience navigating the court process.

For now, it’s “the waiting game,” until either a judge decides to look at their case or their application to the eviction diversion program is processed, Alkhafeel said.

“Where are we supposed to go? There's nowhere to go. There's a killer virus out there,” he 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.