Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay
By Emily L. Mahoney and Christopher
November 30, 2020
Nicole Kelley felt confident when she dialed into her eviction hearing
in late September.
A Lyft driver whose income had dropped off during the pandemic, she had
submitted to the court a copy of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention form in which she swore, under penalty of perjury, that she
fit the criteria to be protected from eviction until 2021.
But the hearing lasted five minutes, and she felt like the judge barely
acknowledged the form. A few weeks later, her landlord texted to say she
had to be out in three days. She sat on the floor of her Brandon rental
duplex and cried.
“I feel like I failed my kid,” Kelley, 44, said in a phone interview
from the Tampa hotel where she’s living now with her 13-year-old
daughter thanks to financial help from loved ones, she said.
Kelley still can’t understand why her case ended this way: “How does the
tiny courtroom and tiny landlord overrule something in place by the
government? By the president? … I feel like we got lied to.”
The nationwide moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control was
supposed to protect renters who have lost work from the pandemic. After
it was announced, Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed Florida’s eviction
moratorium to lapse at the end of September, saying it would avoid
confusion over which order was in force.
But court records show that the federal order has failed to protect
renters in Florida — including hundreds of Tampa Bay families — from
losing their housing.
More than 430 writs of possession — the final legal step of an eviction
where tenants are removed by sheriffs’ deputies — were ordered in
Pinellas County in October, and more than 280 in Hillsborough County.
Those totals contain small numbers of writs in foreclosure cases, but
the vast majority are evictions.
By contrast, no writs were issued in April and May in Pinellas and fewer
than 25 were issued in Hillsborough in May and June, when DeSantis’
moratorium largely stayed courts from completing evictions. After
DeSantis modified the moratorium at the end of July to narrow its
protections, writs started to tick back up but were still under the most
The number of finalized evictions also are surging across other parts of
Florida, records show. In October, 786 writs of possession were issued
in Broward County, 394 in Duval County and 242 in Polk County.
“This is already a crisis situation that will only get worse, especially
after December when the CDC protections expire,” said Tom DiFiore of Bay
Area Legal Services, which offers free legal services to low-income
families facing evictions and immigration issues.
The Centers for Disease Control did not respond to an email requesting
comment. Fred Piccolo, spokesman for DeSantis, did not respond to a call
or text message seeking comment from the governor.
Under the agency’s order, landlords can start eviction proceedings, but
they may not physically remove tenants until after Dec. 31, according to
an FAQ released by federal officials. To be eligible for that
protection, renters must submit a form attesting they meet certain
criteria. Families unable to pay full rent due to a “substantial loss of
household income” qualify if they earn less than $99,000 per year or
$198,000 for a two-income family, have made “best efforts” to make
partial payments and secure government aid, and would either become
homeless or be forced to move into a shared living setting upon
The agency said the order was needed to limit the spread of COVID-19
should millions of Americans lose housing this winter and be forced into
shelters or to double up with friends or family.
But unlike Florida’s moratorium, the federal order puts the burden on
tenants to prove they should not be evicted, DiFiore said.
For example, Florida law requires tenants facing eviction to deposit the
full amount of missed rent before they can present their legal defense
in court. In Kelley’s case, even though she submitted the required form,
the judge ruled that because she failed to deposit the rent money she
owed into the court’s registry, she was eligible to be evicted.
“Obviously, there’s a moratorium in effect, so most average tenants at
this point owe a larger amount than normal — three, four, five, six
months’ rent — so it’s very difficult to deposit that amount owed to
have their day in court,” DiFiore said.
He said he’s seen other Hillsborough cases where tenants’ failure to
submit the unpaid rent to the court resulted in a judgment against them,
but unless the landlord challenged the accuracy of the tenant’s Centers
for Disease Control form, typically the actual evictions were put on
hold until next year.
But Kelley’s case shows the way a tenant’s case ends could depend on
which judge they get.
“Nothing is written in stone,” DiFiore said.
The 13th Circuit declined to make the judge in Kelley’s case available
for an interview. Courts spokesman Mike Moore said judges are prohibited
from commenting on individual cases.
According to court records, Kelley owed $5,000 when her eviction case
was filed. One of her landlords, David Bargo, said he granted two months
of free rent to his other tenants but not Kelley, who he said “took
advantage” and didn’t pay her security deposit.
Kelley moved in in March and said her income was affected immediately by
the pandemic. She said she mostly dealt with Bargo’s brother, who she
said agreed to waive the deposit if Kelley did work on the rental unit.
Renters who have an eviction on their record often struggle to find new
housing, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing
Law Project. He questioned why some judges are finalizing evictions when
the federal order gives tenants the “present right” of possession of
their homes until the order expires.
“Those courts are helping landlords evict tenants rather than applying
the law,” Dunn said. “It’s indefensible, it’s cruel, and it undermines
efforts to combat COVID-19.”
Clearwater renter Malcolm Wright’s eviction was allowed to proceed
because his landlord said they were terminating his month-to-month
tenancy. He had missed several months of rent after losing work at a
company that paints and waterproofs commercial buildings and couldn’t
get unemployment checks through the faulty state system, he said.
But because the eviction was filed as a tenancy termination and not
under “nonpayment,” Wright’s case didn’t fall under the protections of
the federal order, according to Pinellas courts spokesman Stephen
“If this is what they’re doing, there’s no point of even making a
moratorium,” said Wright, 54. “If all they’re going to do is loophole
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose officers enforce the writs, said
he’s noticed the rise in evictions, which are now at a level consistent
for a typical year. He said that while some renters have been evicted
for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, such as those who damaged
property, the Centers for Disease Control’s order has given too many
tenants false hope.
“It’s not a moratorium,” Gualtieri said. “I think it’s a misnomer, and
it leads people to believe that something is in place that does
something it doesn’t.”
* * *
Despite the stronger protections in Florida’s order, tenants had been
slipping through the cracks even while it was in effect.
Sixty complaints alleging improper residential evictions or rent
price-gouging were filed with the Florida Attorney General’s Office
after DeSantis issued his order on April 2 through late September.
The complaints, which were obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a
public records request, reveal how some Floridians were more at risk of
eviction depending on their living situations. But the stories they told
were largely the same: lost work, eviction notices and a fear of what
Some tenants alleged clearly illegal eviction practices, such as being
locked out or having utilities turned off to force them out. Others
reported being kicked out of places that may not have fallen under the
governor’s order: an assisted living facility, a recreational vehicle
park, motels, a long-term AirBnb.
Candice Calhoun was one of those who contacted the Attorney General’s
Office after she and her 17-year-old daughter were evicted in September
from Allister Place Apartments on Busch Boulevard in Tampa.
She had fallen behind in her rent after being let go from temp work
processing unemployment claims.
On Sept. 8, a notice of eviction was posted on her door. Attorneys at
Bay Area Legal Services advised her to complete the Centers for Disease
Control form, give it to her landlord and file a copy in court.
Less than an hour after Calhoun filed her form, a judge upheld the
landlord’s writ of possession. No reason was given for why she did not
qualify for protection under the federal order, she said, though she
suspects an error on her lease was to blame. The next day, she was
forcibly removed from the apartment and the locks changed with her
possessions still inside.
Three days later, she got a call that her stuff was being put out on the
curb. She rushed over to the apartment to save what she could but had
nowhere to take it. Other tenants scavenged most of her possessions and
“I lost everything,” she said.
An assistant manager at Allister Place who identified herself as Barbara
declined to comment on the case. Court records show that the complex has
filed 22 evictions since Florida’s moratorium elapsed on Sept. 30.
Calhoun has since found more temporary work and is living in an
apartment while she cleans and paints it for the owner. Then she will be
“If I could just get myself stable with a roof over my and my children’s
head,” she said. “When you don’t have a roof over your head, it’s
difficult to focus on anything else.”
* * *
Despite the Centers for Disease Control’s goal of tamping down on the
coronavirus spread, some Tampa Bay families are at increased risk even
while its order is in effect.
Wright, the building painter, was back at work after his employer
re-opened when he said a friend who lived nearby called him and said he
saw Wright’s landlord removing all his belongings. Wright said he came
home angry and bewildered, because he had read the federal order and
thought that even though his eviction had gone through, he wasn’t
allowed to be physically removed until 2021.
“I’m thinking I have to get here and call the police, because he’s not
supposed to do any kind of lockout,” he said. But the police told Wright
he was mistaken, he said.
Wright’s landlord did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
He has since moved in with two friends who are providing a place to
crash. No longer living alone, he’s likely at greater risk of infection.
Meanwhile, Kelley, the Lyft driver, said she wears a mask whenever she’s
in the hotel hallways outside of her room, but it’s difficult to feel
safe. A Marine veteran, Kelley said some of the feelings of insecurity
are reminiscent of her time overseas.
“My biggest fear is my daughter catching something,” Kelley said. “That
would be my worst-case scenario.”
She recently arrived back at her room to find a notice taped to the
Another hotel guest had tested positive for COVID-19.