Nearly 800 tenants in Polk County are at risk of losing their home or apartment once the federal moratorium on evictions is lifted Saturday, according to court records obtained by The Ledger.
With the date approaching — which fears will drive a wave of Americans home — state and county officials are urging residents who are behind on their payments to apply for financial assistance prior it’s too late.
Still, it may not be a saving grace for others, one of the owners told The Ledger that some tenants who don’t pay rent are “taking advantage of the situation.”
For those affected by Covid, Polk County has $22 million in federal funding available — part of the $47 billion that Congress has appropriated nationwide. Meanwhile, local agencies, such as The United Way of Central Florida, are also ready to aid through their 2-1-1 phone number.
“There is a lot of money, but people have to come forward,” said Tamara West, director of housing and neighborhood development for Polk County.
At a press conference Monday, Rep. Darren Soto, who represents parts of Polk County, encouraged voters at risk of eviction, as well as landlords who have defaulted on home payments, to take advantage of available resources.
Part of his message: Apply now – don’t wait for the moratorium to end.
“We are trying to spread the word that aid is here and we urge landlords and tenants to work together as well as struggling homeowners to apply,” he said. “It will be much easier to apply now than if you were to confront eviction next week or later.”
“Landlords are more likely to get their back rents back through this program than they are to try to collect them through court proceedings from a tenant who has already been evicted. So it’s a pleasing deal for both,” Soto added.
A backlog of 765 unresolved Polk County evictions dating back to January of 2020, according to a public records request from The Ledger, has been found.
Of that number, 334 renters cited COVID-19 as the reason behind their late payments, court records show. But the reason won’t matter as of Saturday, as landlords are expected to seek the final court step needed to end the eviction: a possession order.
This process could take a few weeks, said Nick Sudzina, court director at the 10th Judicial Court.
“It will take a few weeks for owners to know what they need to do to obtain a possession order and then submit the necessary paperwork,” he said in an email. “Our judges will fine-tune these issues and deal with them in a timely manner because they know the importance of evictions to both parties. For many, the wait has been too lengthy.”
Owner: Some are “taking advantage of the situation”
Records show that of the distinguished eviction cases, 13 are in Bonnie’s apartments in Lakeland. Property manager Benji Westmoreland told The Ledger he is working to educate struggling residents about the financial assistance available.
“Everyone should be treated the way I want to be treated,” he said. “I donate people opportunities and opportunities.”
But Westmoreland said some of its tenants are six months behind on rent, noting that it has to provide water, maintenance repairs and garbage collection to 200 units. It also has to pay the salaries of its employees.
Bottom line, he said, “there is aid, but if you’re not trying to aid yourself, I’m sorry, but you have to go.”
Westmoreland said people facing eviction at Bonny Apartments are unable to prove that their suffering is related to COVID.
To qualify for federal financial assist, Polk County residents must:
Rent an apartment, house, or other residence in Florida.
The family’s income is at or below 80% of the median income in their area.
They experienced a loss of income, competent for unemployment, incurred significant costs, or experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic.
Being at risk of losing their home, facing housing instability, or living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions.
“Some people say it’s the epidemic and I say donate me proof and they can’t,” Westmoreland said. “Some people are trying to take advantage of the situation.”
Many challenges faced by the population prior the epidemic
According to a March 2021 report published by the Florida Housing Alliance, about 18% of renters and 12% of homeowners with mortgages have defaulted on housing payments since the start of the pandemic.
“Without additional assistance, hundreds of thousands of Florida families are at risk of eviction or foreclosure in 2021,” the report said.
The pandemic has exacerbated what was already a challenge in Florida: Many residents cannot afford to purchase their homes.
Before COVID-19, 875,259 ultra-low-income families in Florida paid more than 50% of their incomes for housing, according to the 2021 Housing Study.
Meanwhile, the expiration of the voluntary eviction decision worries local homeless advocates.
“We’re all worried here,” said Brenda Reddot, executive director of Talbot House Ministries, which provides services to the homeless, including shelter.
West expressed similar sentiments.
“There is definitely some concern,” she said. “We don’t want people to become homeless, especially when there is aid to pay people’s rent and utilities.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Polk County provided rent assistance to 603 families, totaling $4 million, West said.
The United Way of Central Florida also offers financial assistance through its 2-1-1 phone number.
The number typically receives about 1,500 calls a month, according to Kathryn Fitzwater, vice president of marketing and communications for the agency.
During the pandemic, the number rose to 5,000 calls a month.
“We can aid with programs for food, clothing, shelter, and financial assistance,” Fitzwater said. “We know we have a lot of needs here.”
Dustin covers Polk County government and issues at the county level. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or TwitterLLDustin_Wyatt.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: 765 Polk County renters may lose their homes as federal eviction moratorium ends