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For Florida tenants, fighting evictions comes at a price

A court win for a lifelong tenant in a Tampa neighborhood could lead to an overhaul of Florida’s eviction law.

Elizabeth Dorado has lived in the same house for 30 years. She raised her two children there. So when her landlord applied to evict her in December 2019, she decided to fight it. To prove she always paid her rent on time and kept the property in good condition, Dorado, 64, first had to pay $3,000.

“I’m shocked,” Dorado said. “It was really hard because I was working paycheck to paycheck. I was a nervous wreck.

Under Florida law, tenants accused of failing to pay rent must pay any amount their landlord says they owe to the court registry before they can proceed with their eviction case. If the tenant does not pay within five business days, the case is defaulted in favor of the landlord.

Proponents of the law say that, without it, delinquent tenants could try to stop evictions while living rent-free. But housing rights advocates argue the law creates a pay-to-play system that prevents poor people from seeking justice.

Florida is the only state in the country that requires tenants to pay before an initial eviction hearing is granted. The Dorado case has the potential to change that.

Elizabeth Dorado poses for a portrait at the Torrance Law Group office in Tampa, PA, on Monday, July 18, 2022.
Elizabeth Dorado poses for a portrait at the Torrance Law Group office in Tampa, PA, on Monday, July 18, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Dorado, who works as a home health aide, was able to borrow the money she needed from one of her clients, allowing the case to proceed. In April, her attorney, Ryan Torrance, petitioned a Hillsborough County Circuit Court judge to overturn the law requiring renters to pay the registry.

“Any Floridian is not required by law to pay an entry ticket costing thousands of dollars to gain entry to the courthouse doors,” the motion states. “This is precisely what Fla. Stat. § 83.60(2) does, and as a result, the statute violates the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of access to courts and the federal Constitution’s due process clause.

Dorado’s landlord, Sandra Consugra, declined to comment for this story through her attorney. The Florida Apartment Association, an industry group of multi-family housing providers, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Lawrence Silvestri is a commercial real estate attorney in St. Petersburg who has represented residential landlords in eviction proceedings. He said the legislation would help protect landowners.

“With this provision, landlords will probably lose a month or two of rent,” he said. “In states where they don’t have this, it can take six months or more before you get a tenant.”

Repealing the law, he said, would open the door for bad tenants to take advantage of the system while helping relatively few tenants with legal protections.

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When the statute was first enacted in 1973, it was intended to protect landlords, said Jeffrey Hearne, director of litigation and advocacy for the Tenants’ Rights Project at Legal Services of Greater Miami. But the overtime language was amended to make it “much more stringent.”

“Landlords have a property interest and they have a right to have a resolution,” Hearne said. “But we cannot take away tenants’ rights to ensure that matters move through the courts effectively.”

Bills aimed at removing the statute were introduced in the Florida Legislature last year, but those efforts died before they reached the House and Senate floors.

Torrance said the Dorado case presents a rare opportunity to seek relief through the courts. “The only reason we can fight this is because she can pay for the registry,” he said. “Most tenants can’t.”

Since 2018, 74,262 evictions have been filed in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to data from the respective court clerks. Less than 10% of those cases lead to trial.

At the start of the pandemic, state and federal governments implemented emergency restrictions to ensure renters had a safe place to stay as the coronavirus spread. This caused a sharp drop in evictions across Florida. But since those protections have expired — a state ban in 2020 and a federal one in 2021 — the number of evictions has risen steadily.

Markel Ferguson, 33, of Clearwater poses for a portrait inside a storage room, holding most of his belongings, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in St. Petersburg.  Ferguson was unable to fight his recent eviction in court because Florida law requires tenants to pay their unpaid rent to court registration in the event of an eviction case.
Markel Ferguson, 33, of Clearwater poses for a portrait inside a storage room, holding most of his belongings, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in St. Petersburg. Ferguson was unable to fight his recent eviction in court because Florida law requires tenants to pay their unpaid rent to court registration in the event of an eviction case. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Among those tenants affected was 33-year-old Markle Ferguson. He was evicted from his Clearwater apartment last month after the state-run rental assistance program failed to pay his landlord on time.

Although Ferguson said he had a legitimate defense for falling behind on rent, “I never got a chance to explain myself,” because his landlord couldn’t come up with the $3,700 he owed.

Generally, the landlord automatically wins if the tenant cannot pay at the registry. But there are some exceptions to the rule. If a tenant says they don’t owe any money, they can argue what’s called a “payment defense,” Torrance said.

Although Dorado raised the defense of payment, she ultimately had to pay the registry. Because her case rests on several other arguments. If she doesn’t pay, she won’t be allowed to make those extra arguments.

Tenants are also allowed to dispute the amount of rent payable. To do so they must file a motion within five business days and provide evidence for the judge to evaluate.

For the average person without a law degree, “the process is not very user-friendly,” Hearne said. “The odds are stacked against you.”

This was Ferguson’s case.

In February, she and her daughter contracted COVID-19, causing her to miss several weeks of work. During that time, Ferguson worked for a solar company and earned a lot of money in commissions. She had previously applied to our Florida Emergency Rental Assistance Program and reached out to them again for help. Ferguson said three payments of $1,200 were approved to cover rent for March, April and May.

Ferguson said the March rental assistance was paid. In April, our payment from Florida never came. At first, Ferguson said his property manager was understanding. Then in May the same thing happened, the money didn’t come.

Laura Walthall, a spokeswoman for the state agency that runs Our Florida, said Ferguson was not approved to receive aid in April and May. Ferguson’s property management company, Providence Team Realty, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

By June, Ferguson was two months behind on rent, but her property manager agreed to wait for Our Florida to send the rent assistance money, she said. It never came. After a heated back-and-forth with the property manager, Ferguson said her outstanding balance continued to increase until she was $3,700 in arrears.

He received an eviction summons on June 17. Ferguson knew she didn’t have the money to pay the registry, so she wrote a letter to a judge in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, explaining her situation and asking for a hearing to determine the amount of rent owed.

On July 11, the judge entered a final judgment with the property manager. There was no response to Ferguson’s letter and no explanation as to why he would not be granted a hearing.

Ferguson and her two children moved last month with nowhere to go. Her children are now staying with family members in the area, and Ferguson is couch surfing until she finds a new apartment.

Although he hoped he would be able to resolve the dispute amicably through the court system, “the whole situation has defeated me,” he said. “I think I’ve taken advantage of being poor.”

Elizabeth Dorado poses for a portrait at the Torrance Law Group office in Tampa, PA, on Monday, July 18, 2022.
Elizabeth Dorado poses for a portrait at the Torrance Law Group office in Tampa, PA, on Monday, July 18, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

There have been a few lawsuits that have raised issues with the court’s registry system, though none have succeeded in changing the law requiring tenants to pay upfront.

Torrance said Dorado’s case has the potential to eliminate financial barriers that prevent Ferguson and countless other Floridians from getting their day in court.

“We hope the judge makes the right decision here and strikes down this law,” he said.

Dorado had no plans to live anywhere other than the house he rented on West St. John Street. Now she is not sure where she will live if she has to go.

“I would love to stay forever,” he said. “That’s my dream.”

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