WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One of the long-term side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could be its impact on the housing market.
Whether it was illness, lost wages, or a mix of both -- many renters have fallen behind on their bills.
Now, we are starting to see a wave of evictions -- and even as infection rates spike again, legal protections and financial assistance programs are ending.
RENTERS UNDER PRESSURE
When the pandemic started in March, Tiffany Ford was one of thousands of South Floridians out of work.
The single mom living in Lake Worth had to rely on unemployment to support her three young children.
But now that unemployment benefits have reduced, she has fallen behind on bills, and is facing eviction.
"It was just days of crying, frustration, stress, wondering what do I do if the worst happens?" Ford said. "My landlord said if I can't get the money, he wanted me out by the weekend."
She is one of more than 15,000 Palm Beach County residents who have filed applications for rental assistance funds through the county's CARES Act funds.
The rent and utility assistance program was set up to keep Palm Beach County residents safely in their homes during the pandemic -- even if they have fallen behind on rent and other payments.
Public health officials have warned that evictions could lead to overcrowded homes and shelters, where the virus can more easily spread.
In the spring, evictions were halted out of public health concerns.
But now that Governor DeSantis has fully re-opened Florida's economy, he let his eviction moratorium lapse -- and a wave of evictions are starting up again.
According to the Palm Beach County Clerk's office, there have been more than 3,000 eviction notices filed in the county since April.
PROTECTIONS AND ASSISTANCE RUNNING OUT
The pandemic is far from over -- but financial assistance and legal protections are running out for tenants facing eviction.
This week, the Palm Beach County Community Services Department stopped accepting applications for the limited CARES Act rental assistance funds.
Director James Green told CBS12 News his staff has been going through a flood of applications, working weekends and holidays to catch up.
So far, the county has written more than 5,000 checks to landlords and property managers to keep evictions at bay -- dispersing more than $9 million -- with more money already approved for processing.
Tiffany Ford says her application has gone through -- and is still waiting on the funds. She thinks her family will be safe from eviction for now -- but worries about what the new year will bring.
That's because a CDC order halting evictions is set to expire December 31.
Right now, that order is the only protection renters like Tiffany have.
As housing attorney Tequisha Myles explained, the burden is on the tenant to know the CDC order exists, fill it out, and present it to their landlord or judge in the event an eviction notice is filed.
"Come January, if there is not some extension on the moratorium, I think we will have a lot of tenant, families with children, faced with either moving into another family member's home and having an overcrowded home there, or we're going to have an epidemic of homelessness that we can't really afford."
Myles is a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, which offers representation to low income residents in eviction cases.
"I've been at Legal Aid through the foreclosure crisis, and all kinds of natural disasters," she said. "I think this [pandemic] has been one of the hardest things to deal with."
LANDLORDS FACE LOOMING FORECLOSURES
It's not just tenants feeling the impact -- landlords are struggling to make ends meet, especially if their renters have fallen behind on their payments.
"This is affecting landlords as much as its affecting tenants," said real estate attorney Jerron Kelley, who represents landlords in evictions cases.
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He said while renters had a few months of reprieve -- landlords were still on the hook for mortgage and insurance payments, property taxes and repair costs for their units.
"I think we are seeing a growing crisis," Kelley said. "We have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to foreclosures."
The problem appears to be widespread. According to a US Census Survey, 1 in 3 US adults say it is likely that they could face eviction or foreclosure in the coming months.