JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Jacksonville attorney Mike Freed made his mark locally by running an annual series of marathons to raise funds for legal aid in the Jacksonville area.
Now he’s asking lawyers across the country to donate their time to help prevent a spate of evictions due to the pandemic’s impact on jobs and income.
“Sometimes you have to give up your time without compensation for the common good,” said Freed, president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, an organization that includes bar associations in 53 states and territories.
Freed, an attorney for the Gunster law firm, which runs an annual six-day series of six marathons called Freed to Run, used online news to highlight a letter signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last week urging attorneys to do one Prevent eviction tsunami.
“Over three million households that are behind with their rent payments believe they could be evicted in the next two months. The effects of evictions on these families would be devastating, ”Garland wrote. “… (N) no matter where you live, lawyers and law students like you can use your legal education and skills to help your community.”
In the days ahead after the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a federal moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, the pleadings responded to a situation that is getting worse for many renters.
In Duval County, judges on evictions last month issued 530 orders for police to serve deeds and repossess tenants’ homes.
It was the highest monthly number of lawsuits that year, bringing the total for the year to 2,521.
Landlords filed an additional 737 evictions last month, or 5,453 for the year.
The National Conference last week launched an appeal to lawyers across the country to work with courts to try to resolve rental issues without evictions that could overwhelm courts across the country.
“Lawyers can make a huge difference in a family’s ability to maintain housing,” the group said in an appeal that asked lawyers to volunteer with legal aid and the courts to help develop diversion programs for out-of-court processing to cooperate in cases of subsequent tenants.
Eviction notices like these posted on an apartment door along Bourbon Alley South in Arlington have been posted in thousands of Jacksonville rental homes this year despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-based eviction moratoria. Florida renters have to follow very specific requirements in order to be protected by moratorium rules and many people don’t take the right steps.
In Jacksonville, the fact that the city reopened its Emergency Rental Assistance Portal (ERAP) on Friday means lawyers have a better chance of being truly helpful, said Jim Kowalski, CEO of JALA.
“As you know, the Jacksonville program was dormant from April until today, and without the ERAP funding, attorneys’ ability to influence evictions is limited,” Kowalski said via email. “Now that these funds are available, there may be more opportunities.”
The Jacksonville rental assistance program has distributed approximately $ 15 million to 2,890 households, said Sarah Henderson, a United Way of Northeast Florida spokeswoman who handled the applications. The ERAP portal reopened to use about $ 10 million that was left over.
Evicting a tenant without using that bailout means the landlord will lose the opportunity to get back thousands of dollars in additional rents that a defaulting former tenant cannot pay, the National Conference pointed out.
Losing that money can have dire repercussions for landlords too, especially retail investors who own a property or two and need that income to pay their own bills, said Freed, the former head of two local legal organizations.
Since the rental assistance system uses information from both tenants and landlords, Freed says that sometimes both parties just need someone to guide them through the application process.
He said he spoke to a University of Florida legal clinic this week about volunteering at JALA and elsewhere and said there are people who can provide the help needed.
“Much of what it takes is not a heavy lift when it comes to legal work,” Freed said.
Some property owners have had to navigate a patchwork of aid programs from across the state, said Amanda White, director of government affairs for the Florida Apartment Association. “This included learning the different application procedures for dozens of programs and communicating program details to residents,” said White, who said the association used webinars, email blasts, and other tools to try to educate landlords.
But Freed said lawyers can do a lot to help solve their rental problems as best they can.
“Our profession is uniquely positioned,” he said, “… (to) bring the time and talent needed and available in our ranks to avert the devastating effects of the clearance crisis.”
Contact the distributor of this article, The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, for copyright information.