Florida lawmakers introduce bills to protect renters

Gadsden County residents move out of their home. Photo by Paulette Jordan

Two bills that address the growing crisis of COVID-related evictions have been filed by Florida Democratic lawmaker who are looking to assist renters impacted by the pandemic.

The bills are SB 926 and SB 412. Both were introduced by Senator Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

“Our state should be utilizing mediation to discuss options for tenants and landlords prior to the eviction proceeding,”Rousonsaid at a news conference.

The goal for both bills is to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to tenants adversely impacted by COVID-19.

SB 926 asks for independent mediation between landlords and tenants before eviction papers are processed by the court.

SB 412helps to seal the records of anyone evicted from their home due to COVID-related issues such as the loss of a job or reduced income.

“This issue about evictions existed before COVID but it has been exacerbated by COVID,” said Tim Dutton, executive director of the community group Unite Pinellas.In Pinellas County alone, 11 families are evicted every day in court. Statewide, the number is 140 daily evictions filed in court.”

SB 142 is designed to address the disparity between evicted tenants and landlords. While only 10 percent of tenants usually have legal representation, about 80-90 percent of landlords hire a lawyer, according to Dutton.

In Miami, a total of 8,067 evictions [for residential and commercial properties] were filed from March 13, 2020, to Jan. 15, 2021, according to the Clerk of the Courts. An additional 5,146 residential-only evictions were filed from Sept. 1 to Jan. 15. A total of 2,259 writs of possession have been granted.

“Nationally, 16 million families are at risk of eviction,” Dutton said. “Florida’s share of that is about one million people.”

SB 926 was filed on Jan. 28 and on Feb. 4 it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bills will be considered in Florida’s upcoming legislative session, which opens March 2.

“Once you have an eviction on your record, it is exceedingly difficult to find another landlord who will rent to you,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa. “This bill will seal your record and give you an opportunity to find a new home.”

When a resident being evicted contests the charges, they are required to deposit all monies owed into a court registry before a judge will hear the case.

Rep. Hart filed a companion bill — HB 657 — for eviction records.