By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
A Miami woman says her landlord took advantage of a brief pause in the national eviction moratorium to force her out of her home illegally.
The facts, if not the legal conclusion, are straightforward. But the year-long saga of property owner Delia Ramos versus tenant Belkys Penate is complicated.
Though Ramos succeeded in evicting Penate, there’s no clear winner. Ramos is out a lot of money she may never recover, and Penate’s lawyer said he’ll try to interest federal law enforcement in the case.
Penate and her husband moved into a relative’s crowded home Saturday and can only hope the arrangement will be temporary.
This is one act of a drama that’s playing out across America as politicians, scientists and judges struggle with the housing fallout of the relentless COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them are trying to strike a balance between safety and economic hardship, but the results are seldom optimal.
Who does moratorium protect?
Penate’s lawyer, David Winker, said Miami-Dade County Court Judge Elijah Levitt allowed Ramos to take possession of the Penate house on Aug. 2, the only recent business day when no moratorium was in effect. An extension ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) kicked in on Aug. 3.
According to Winker, Ramos defied federal law by swooping into court Aug. 2 after a year of litigation. Violating the moratorium is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000, one year in jail, or both; the CDC order directs the Department of Justice to “initiate criminal proceedings as appropriate.”
“The judge did what he was allowed to do,” Winker said. “I’m actually sympathetic to Mrs. Ramos, but the law is the law.”
According to Ramos’s lawyer, Alejandro Sixto, the tenant took unfair advantage of the moratorium to avoid paying rent. Because Penate has relatives she could move in with, “there is no danger of exposure to COVID in an overcrowded homeless shelter, and the COVID guidelines from the CDC are not being violated,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions from Florida Bulldog.
In fact, CDC rules do not protect only the homeless population and do not exempt landlords whose tenants could take shelter with relatives.
CDC ties evictions to COVID
“My client is 70+ years old and relies on the income from this, her only investment property which was her former home,” Sixto wrote. “This is not a case of a large business that can accept not receiving rent for over a year and not feel anything.”
On the tenant side, more than 1.4 million Americans expect to be evicted by the end of September and another 2.2 million say it’s “somewhat likely” they’ll be evicted by then, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey from July.
Three days after an existing moratorium expired on July 31, the Biden administration approved the two-month extension. The scope is limited to pandemic hot spots.
Florida classified 27 percent of all hospitalizations — more than one in four — as COVID-19 patients, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported last week. The Florida Times-Union reported that Florida’s percentage of COVID hospitalizations is the highest in the nation. The national average is 19.4 percent.
Evictions that cause overcrowding help spread the virus, according to the CDC.
“Studies show that COVID-19 transmission occurs readily within households,” says the Aug. 3 order signed by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “Household contacts are estimated to be 6 times more likely to become infected” than other close contacts.
A crowd at sister’s house
For 19 months Penate and her husband lived in Ramos’s 1,932-square-foot house in Miami’s Westchester neighborhood. The monthly rent was $2,400. Total amount they were behind in rent payments: $33,200.
They had to take all their possessions and leave by 9 a.m. last Saturday, August 14. Now, according to Penate, five adults, a teenager and a 1-year-old child are sharing her sister’s three-bedroom house.
“I still don’t know where we’re going,” Penate said Friday during a break from packing ahead of an expected tropical storm. Fortunately, it veered away from South Florida on moving day.
She said landlords are demanding four months’ rent in advance. Even so, “With an eviction on file, there’s no one that will rent to you.”
Penate, 54, said she didn’t have the money to pay the rent. She said she was a hospital administrator who opted to stay home and raise her teenage son and her husband, who is 56 and a stroke survivor, retired from the Miami-Dade police force in 2010.
Judge relied on ‘dynamic adjectives’
After a year of legal maneuvering by Winker and Sixto, Levitt closed the eviction case last week.
The judge referred to a state law that requires the tenant to place disputed rent money in the court registry or lose automatically. It says failure to comply is an “absolute” waiver of all defenses and enables the landlord to obtain an “immediate” default judgment.
“These dynamic adjectives may not be ignored,” Levitt wrote. Penate never put the disputed rent money into the court registry, so she lost the case.
Still, Winker said he hopes a federal prosecutor will file an enforcement action.
He acknowledged such individual prosecutions are rare. However, “if it gets out that no one’s enforcing this” moratorium order, landlords will decide they can defy it with impunity.
“You gotta pound someone every once in a while,” Winker said.