While they were watching Netflix late one Sunday night in October, the power went out in Mychelle Bentley and Marco Valencia's North Miami Beach rental unit. The couple walked outside to investigate and thought it was strange that the rest of their block had electricity, including other tenants in their building.
They called Florida Power & Light the next day. A representative told the couple it must have been a problem with the circuit breaker; the company had not shut off power to the unit. Bentley and Valencia checked the door to the room with the circuit breaker outside of their apartment and were surprised to find it secured with a lock.
"It had never been locked before," Bentley tells New Times.
The two started to suspect that their landlord, who'd been trying to evict them for months, had cut off the electricity. Bentley, an artist, and Valencia, a musician, lost most of their income because of the COVID-19 pandemic and fell behind on rent.
They paid full rent in March and made a partial payment of $500 in April.
"We contacted the landlord and said, 'Hey, we're really struggling,'" Bentley recounts. "I told him I would pay him what I can. We were trying to work it out at first. Then a month passes and the guy is like, 'This isn't working out. You guys have to go.'"
The couple spent four days without power and called their landlord to no avail. Finally, they contacted North Miami Beach police.
In Florida, it's illegal for a landlord to cut off a tenant's utilities, including water, heat, or electricity. The North Miami Beach officers talked to Bentley and the landlord, who refused to turn on the power, according to police reports. The landlord told the cops the issue would be addressed in court.
Bentley's situation illustrates the tactics landlords sometimes use to try to kick out tenants despite local and federal moratoriums that are supposed to protect people from becoming homeless amid the pandemic. Across the U.S., renters have described their landlords using intimidation and all kinds of tricks to skirt tenant protections.
Florida renters were shielded against evictions under a statewide moratorium from April until the end of September. Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed the moratorium to expire on October 1, but renters still have some protections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a federal order halting residential evictions through December 31, arguing that the moratorium can be an effective public-health measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Miami-Dade County implemented a moratorium on evictions on March 12 — the day then-Mayor Carlos A. Giménez declared a local state of emergency owing to the pandemic. Giménez also ordered county police to suspend eviction enforcement because of the emergency declaration.
Despite those safety nets, the protections aren't all automatic. Under the CDC moratorium, renters are required to submit a sworn affidavit and sometimes prove certain criteria, including that they can't pay full rent because of a substantial loss of income, that they have tried to make partial payments, and that being evicted would result in homelessness. And even if a person is covered by the CDC moratorium, a landlord can challenge the declaration a tenant provides.
The CDC order only halts evictions for cases of nonpayment. Tenants who are being evicted for other reasons aren't covered.
Nor is the local moratorium a blanket protection. Landlords in Miami-Dade can still initiate eviction proceedings for nonpayment, demand the rent payments, and take tenants to court. The moratoriums don't forgive rent; the payments will eventually come due.
Eviction cases are proceeding in Miami-Dade circuit court, and judges are issuing so-called writs of possession, court orders that come at the end of an eviction proceeding. A writ of possession returns control of a residence to the landlord and commands police to remove tenants and their belongings from the property.
Landlords can't evict tenants without that court order. What protects Miami-Dade tenants in cases of nonpayment is that police have not been serving them.
That changed right before Giménez left office last month. On November 13, the outgoing mayor gave the green light to law-enforcement officers to serve writs of possession for cases filed on or before March 12. According to a county press release, the eviction moratorium remains in place for cases filed after March 12.
It's unclear how many eviction filings are pending. But according to the Community Justice Project (CJP), an organization that provides legal aid to vulnerable communities in Miami, 545 evictions were filed in Miami-Dade circuit court between November 1 and November 15 alone.
Denise Ghartey, an attorney with the CJP, says eviction filings are on the rise and, despite moratoriums, landlords are finding ways to rid themselves of tenants.
"In a lot of cases, landlords were filing a no-cause eviction or saying they just wanted possession of the unit back," Ghartey says. "They would then file another case for damages for unpaid rent. That was a way for the landlord to get around eviction moratoriums."
Lawyers and community-based organizations like the CJP are swamped with cases and calls from people concerned about losing their homes. And they're preparing for worse come January 1, when the CDC moratorium is set to expire.
"There's going to be more cases filed, the court is going to be completely packed, and the police might have to forcibly remove people from their homes," Ghartey says.
Ghartey says the CJP and other organizations are working on "democratizing" information so that tenants have the tools they need to represent themselves in eviction proceedings and know what they need to do if their landlord takes them to court.
If your landlord is trying to evict you, Ghartey suggests contacting a lawyer. A number of local legal-aid organizations, including the CJP and Legal Services of Greater Miami, take on certain cases and offer legal advice. Tenants can seek help from statewide legal aid organizations, too. Miami-Dade County also offers emergency rental assistance.
Even if renters can't find a lawyer, they're required to respond to eviction filings in court. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has an online tool to help Florida tenants craft a response.
The CJP website supplies helpful infographics in English, Spanish, and Creole. Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida explains the general eviction process. The CJP and Legal Services of Greater Miami created a video tutorial on how to file a response in eviction proceedings in Florida courts.
Those organizations, as well as the Miami Workers Center, are offering weekly virtual legal clinics to inform renters about handling their own eviction cases and asserting their rights as tenants. The Miami Workers Center is also raising money for COVID-19 and rent relief.
"There are a lot of organizations doing outreach to get people information, and there are a lot of tools created to help people understand what to do if their landlord files an eviction action against them," Ghartey says.
Those tools were available and effective for Bentley and Valencia, the couple whose landlord cut off the power in their North Miami Beach apartment. Bentley posted about her situation on Facebook and was referred to the Miami Tenants Union, an organization focused on securing better living conditions for Miami renters. Members of the tenants union visited the couple's apartment, took photos, organized a crowdfunding campaign for rent money, and connected the couple with other organizations that could help.
Bentley was also assisted by the Community Justice Project and Legal Services of Greater Miami. When the landlord refused to restore the couple's power, attorneys from both organizations represented Bentley in a lawsuit against him. (Ghartey is one of Bentley's attorneys.)
The lawsuit, which alleged that the landlord retaliated against Bentley for being unable to pay rent, sought the restoration of electricity, plus monetary damages. Bentley ended up settling with her landlord. She and her fiancé decided they wanted to move out of the apartment. They left, and in exchange, the landlord compensated the couple for shutting off their utilities, as required by Florida law, and waived their back rent.
With money from the Miami Tenants Union fundraiser, Bentley and her fiancé moved to a different apartment in North Miami Beach.
"I feel like I can breathe," she says. "I feel like I have a sense of dignity now."
Bentley says what she and her fiancé went through felt like a nightmare. What gave her hope were the neighbors who cooked for them when they didn't have money for food and all of the strangers-turned-friends who came together to help them in other ways.
"Being supported by people who don't know you, have no reason to help you, but do it out of the goodness of their hearts — that feels good," she says.
Since then, Bentley has started volunteering for the Miami Tenants Union. She says her experiences have taught her that although South Florida is marketed as paradise, that's often not the reality for the people who are living, working, and busting ass to make ends meet.
"Things have gotta change, and we have to start by telling people they're worthy of better," she says. "I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. We really have to come together as neighbors and say we're tired of being treated like nothing. I'm here, I'm kicking, and I want people to know that help is out there."
For information about your rights as a tenant and any applicable eviction protections, see the Florida Housing Justice Alliance website.
For legal advice, contact Community Justice Project or Legal Services of Greater Miami. For COVID-19 and rent relief for Black and brown female workers and other vulnerable comunities, see Miami Workers Center.
To organize, see the Miami Tenants Union website.
The Florida Housing Justice Alliance is seeking volunteers to do outreach with tenants facing eviction and who may need information and resources. To learn more about volunteering, contact the Miami Tenants Union.
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