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For Many in Miami, Rent Is Due April 1 — Do You Have to Pay?

Update, April 2: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued a 45-day statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

Tomorrow is the first of the month, and all renters know what that means: It's time to fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars to your landlord.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Miami was the most rent-burdened city in the United States; according to Census Bureau data, nearly two-thirds of renters here spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

But a lot has changed since the last time rent was due.

Since March 1, at least 74,000 Floridians have filed for unemployment benefits owing to coronavirus-related job loss. Experts say Miami-Dade County stands to lose more than 100,000 jobs because of the pandemic.

Miami-Dade renters have a few protections at the county, state, and federal levels. For starters, the Miami-Dade Police Department has said officers will not enforce eviction orders while the county is under a state of emergency. In addition, the Florida Supreme Court has advised the state's clerks of court to stop issuing writs of possession — the final document in an eviction that police can use to remove a tenant — until April 17.

"The most a landlord could do is file an eviction, but it’s just going to sit there," says Jeffrey Hearne, director of litigation at Legal Services of Greater Miami, which provides free legal help to low-income clients.

Beyond that, Congress last Friday passed the CARES Act, otherwise known as the coronavirus stimulus bill. Included in the relief package is a measure that places a 120-day moratorium on evictions for tenants in federally financed housing. The act bars property owners from evicting tenants from federally subsidized housing or from a property with a federally backed mortgage loan for failure to pay rent. 

According to the National Housing Law Project, about 70 percent of mortgages for single-family homes are federally backed, meaning tenants who live in those houses cannot be evicted just yet. Hearne says the problem is that renters typically don't know much about their landlords' mortgages. Moreover, the eviction moratorium is simply a suspension, meaning rent payments for April, May, June, and July will still be owed to the landlord later this year.

"It doesn't eliminate the rent. It doesn't say you don't owe it. It just says the landlord can't file an eviction for nonpayment of rent for the next 120 days," Hearne explains. (That's true of Miami-Dade's own eviction moratorium: All rent payments will eventually become due.)

A coalition of community groups says a simple eviction moratorium isn't enough to protect vulnerable renters. The organizations, through the Florida Housing Justice Alliance, have asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to cancel rent payments for the duration of the emergency plus an extra 30 days.

"This must cover public and private properties, rental buildings and manufactured home communities, small business commercial property leases, and be coordinated with banks and lenders to reduce rents and mortgage payments to zero for the duration of the crisis, including any fees or interest payments, and fully forgiven as folks begin to get back on their feet," the March 23 letter states. "Section 8 vouchers and Public Housing Authorities should cover the full amount of rent during this period."

Hearne, meanwhile, says tenants who are worried about affording rent payments should start a dialogue with their landlords.

"Talk to your landlord, let them know what's going on, and see if you can work something out," he advises.

As for landlords, Hearne recommends they tread lightly. State law prohibits them from so-called self-help evictions, whereby a landlord evades the formal eviction process by changing the locks on a renter or shutting off the water. According to Florida statutes, landlords can be punished by having to pay the tenant damages of up to three times the monthly rent payment.

If you need legal advice regarding an eviction, contact Legal Services of Greater Miami for help. An FAQ from the organization is posted below.

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