By Caroline Glenn | May 13, 2021 | A Three-Part Orlando Sentinel Special Report
How COVID exposed Florida’s eviction crisis
Jocelyn Bennett paints her daughters’ toenails, not bothered by the strong scent of nail polish filling the room at the HomeTown Studios in Orlando. The girls show off their pink toes, toddling around the small pay-by-the-week hotel room, one of many the Bennetts have called home since the pandemic began and they got evicted.
It’s just one room with a bathroom with not enough space to even open the front door all the way. But it’s got a stove and a fridge, and it’s better than living in their car or outside. There are two beds, one for mom and dad, and the other is shared by their five kids who are all under 6 years old.
These days, a bottle of Dollar Tree nail polish is one of the only luxuries Jocelyn Bennett can give them.
“That’s the worst feeling to have is I can’t provide for my kids. That’s probably the worst feeling you can have as a parent, not knowing what to do and calling 2-1-1 and them not knowing what to do,” Jocelyn, 26, said, referring to United Way’s emergency hotline.
In March 2020, Jocelyn lost her nursing assistant job at a senior living facility. Dexter, her husband, had been between jobs, finding work through a temp agency. They were already on food stamps. In April, they couldn’t cover the rent. Their landlord told them they needed to be out in 30 days. And the family became homeless in a matter of weeks.
“It was a downward spiral after that,” Dexter, 36, said. “Since COVID started, we’ve been living in hotels.”
For renters in Florida, this is what eviction can look like. It doesn’t always play out in a courtroom because many renters can’t get a court hearing, which results in their landlord automatically winning the case. Some people, like the Bennetts, leave without responding to an eviction notice because they don’t think they can fight it.
Housing experts argue Florida has some of the harshest eviction laws in the country, written so landlords can evict people as quickly as possible and without going to court. During the COVID-19 outbreak, those landlord-friendly laws, coupled with the state’s severe shortage of affordable homes, rising rents and years of stagnant wages, left thousands of suddenly jobless renters exposed. And even after the government ordered a halt to eviction proceedings and federal dollars were made available to help people pay rent, many tenants were not spared.
Black Floridians, who were already more likely to lose their job to the pandemic and die from COVID-19, were even more likely to be locked out of their homes. In a mostly Black part of downtown Orlando, for example, renters were about six times as likely to face eviction than in another mostly white part of downtown, according to new data compiled for the Orlando Sentinel by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.
Shimberg estimates more than 57,000 evictions were filed in Florida just from March 2020 to mid-December, pushing families like the Bennetts into homelessness at a time the government was ordering people to quarantine.
Central Florida renters, many of them the same low-wage workers who power the region’s tourism economy, were particularly vulnerable. Even before the pandemic and mass layoffs upended their lives, they lived paycheck to paycheck in a town where rent keeps climbing and wages don’t budge.
So when the bottom fell out of the tourism and service industries, there was no safety net for them, and Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature did nothing to help.
“They are the ones who face wrongful eviction, they are the ones who can’t get living wages, they are the ones who are struggling to find reliable public transportation. It’s all on them,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orlando. “And when we ignore these crises with affordable housing, eviction, wages, public transit — we’re doing it on the backs of working people.
“They are the ones who pay.”
Renters struggled before COVID
Florida ranks among the states with the worst affordable rental housing shortages in the nation, data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show. New housing has been added to try to keep up with the state’s population growth, but developers have largely ignored building places to live for low-income residents.
Over the past 20 years in Florida, nearly 200,000 rental units priced under $1,000 per month disappeared as landlords increased rents. At the same time, about 1 million units priced above $1,000 were added, the Shimberg Center found…