By Francisco Alvarado,FloridaBulldog.org
Local, state and federal moratoriums meant to protect renters from facing threats of eviction throughout the pandemic don’t apply to public housing tenants in Miami-Dade County who miss deadlines to submit proof of their indigent status.
The Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development Department has filed 14 eviction lawsuits since May against low-income residents, in some cases families who failed to follow through with an annual reexamination and recertification process for taxpayer-subsidized housing. Boilerplate language in the complaints alleges the tenants’ failure to complete the recertification is a “willful, ongoing and continuing violation” of their lease agreements, according to county court records. Tenants facing eviction lawsuits are paying between zero to $131 a month in rent.
Social-justice advocates contend the housing agency is violating a 2019 county ordinance that prohibits any eviction proceedings to be initiated against public housing tenants during a state of emergency, while also flouting the spirit of the eviction moratoriums. Critics also assert most public housing tenants do not have the means to mount legal defenses or are unaware of how to defend themselves against eviction actions.
“Our position is that they should not have even filed the evictions,” Sean Rowley, advocacy director for tenants rights’ for Legal Services of Greater Miami, told Florida Bulldog. “A filed lawsuit will cause some people to just up and leave. It will absolutely make some tenants believe they have to get out.”
Santra Davis, executive director of the Miami Workers Center, said the housing agency is participating in unjust and unconscionable acts at a time Americans are bracing for mass evictions once the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium expires in January. Gov. Ron DeSantis let a state moratorium expire, and Miami-Dade’s former Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued an executive order that restored the county police department’s power to enforce evictions. He did so last month just before he left office.
“We know this pandemic has been really hard, especially for folks who are on minimum wage fixed incomes,” Davis said. “You would think the housing agency would set the standard or lead the way and not turn its back on them.”
Public housing chief
Jose Mascorro, director of the department’s public housing division, said the moratoriums don’t apply to tenants who fail to follow the terms of their lease agreements. “Any moratorium that has been in place talks about nonpayment of rent,” Mascorro said. “Every case that has been filed has nothing to do with paying rent and everything to do with following the rules in their legal documents.”
Furthermore, tenants who have been hit with eviction lawsuits won’t necessarily be thrown out, Mascorro said. The goal is to make their residents more accountable in fulfilling federally mandated requirements such as providing documentation about their income, employment status and other necessary paperwork, he added. “We have to hold them to that,” Mascorro said. “At this agency, we are very lenient with deadlines and work with families to make sure we are keeping them housed.”
On an annual basis, tenants are required to provide Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development with documents about their income, employment status and other information to determine if they are still eligible for low income housing and to calculate their monthly rent payments, Mascorro said. Tenants also have to show they are paying utilities on time, that utility services are under their names and that they pass a criminal background check.
Property managers will usually meet with tenants two months before the recertification and reexamination to go over the paperwork, Mascorro explained. “So if there are any missing documents, they still have 60 days to make sure they have everything they need,” he said. “Just to reiterate, we are in the business of keeping people housed. We are absolutely not wanting to evict anyone. That’s been the attitude even before the pandemic.”
Mascorro said the housing agency has also worked out rent adjustments with tenants who have informed the housing agency that they cannot pay rent because of losing their jobs or other financial hardships as a result of the pandemic. “About five percent of the 9,000 households we manage have been impacted in this manner,” he said. “Every week. We track how many people come in to say they have lost their jobs and their rent has to change. If they fall behind, we simply enter into a repayment agreement. We won’t evict them.”
Tenants plead their case
Yet, a handful of tenants accused Miami-Dade Public Housing of not factoring COVID-19’s impact on their lives when they failed to do their recertification, according to their responses to the lawsuits filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
For instance, in an Aug. 20 letter, public housing tenant Yovanka Rodrizes asserted that she submitted her documentation for her recertification on time even though her deadline had been rescheduled due to the pandemic. “I personally handed my package to Felice Outen, the site manager at the time,” Rodrizes wrote. “I don’t have an exact date, but the property management office has it.” She also noted that her packet was only missing a copy of her gas bill.
Rodrizes, who resides in a Miami-Dade-owned two-story apartment building in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood, pleaded that she and her four children should not be evicted. “Coronavirus has been hard on everyone,” Rodrizes wrote. “I also understand that I also have a responsibility to fulfill my part. I don’t believe I should be evicted for a missing paper in my packet.”
Another public housing tenant, Sheniqua Ray, submitted a hand-written note to the court on Oct. 6 that states she was temporarily caring for her mother, who had contracted COVID-19 and was also coping with the death of her aunt from the deadly virus, when it was time for her to get recertified. Ray, who resides in a public housing apartment in Cutler Bay in South Miami-Dade, wrote that no one from the property management office contacted her and that she was never hand-delivered any notices that she was in danger of being evicted.
“I have nowhere else to live,” Ray wrote. “I need my place.”
No record of recertification
According to Mascorro, Miami-Dade Public Housing has no record that Rodrizes dropped off her recertification packet. “We don’t have any of her paperwork,” he said. “Even though it is well beyond when it was due, if we can get her to fill out a new packet, we will pull her eviction.” As far as Ray, Mascorro said the department followed all the appropriate notification guidelines to make sure she knew she was due for her recertification. “My understanding is that she has not made any attempts to contact us,” he said.
Florida Bulldog attempted to reach Rodrizes via a phone number listed on her letter, but it was disconnected. Ray also listed a phone number in her court note, but she did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Of the 14 lawsuits, the housing agency has worked out an agreement with only one family to dismiss the eviction pleadings. The three-member household stays in an apartment at a Miami-Dade Public Housing property in Allapattah. According to a stipulation agreement, the family had to submit employment documentation for an 18-year-old son and pay $1,063 in two installments in November and this month. The amount was for $263 in back rent and $800 in attorney fees.
The family’s matriarch, who asked that she remain anonymous because she fears retaliation from the housing agency, said the property manager got upset with her because her son failed to show up at their recertification appointment in June. “If it was up to me, I would pack up and be gone tomorrow,” she said. “But we can’t afford a decent place to live. When I got the eviction notice because my son missed the meeting, it felt like a plot to put us out.”
The mom, who said she is on disability and cannot work, is relying on her son and daughter to make ends meet. “To make this eviction go away, they made us pay $1,000,” she said. “Doing this to somebody is just wrong even if everything was going great and everything was jolly. Doing it during the pandemic makes it worse.”