Evictions are climbing in the greater Tampa Bay region. One Clearwater man shares his story
More than 1,500 renters were evicted in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in March. That’s a 26 percent jump compared to January of 2020, according to data from the Eviction Lab.
Bill was evicted for the first time in his life in March.
He is 64 and wears shoulder-length dreads and blue-tinted shades. He asked that only his first name be used so he doesn’t hurt his chances of renting in the future.
As he sits on a curb in a parking lot off 49th St. in Clearwater he holds his phone and earbuds and carries a pack of cigarillos in his pocket. It’s a ten minute walk from the homeless shelter, where he’s been staying for more than a month.
He holds up his finger to emphasize: “I’m calling it shelter.”
He’s careful not to call it home.
More than 1,500 renters in the greater Tampa Bay region were evicted from their homes in March. That marks a 26 percent jump compared to January of 2020, according to data from the Eviction Lab.
Researcher Jacob Haas points to the expiration of COVID-era relief as a chief reason for the rebounding number of evictions nationwide.
“During the depths of the pandemic, there were eviction protections in place, both federally and at the state and local level. And those caps kept evictions fairly low,” he said.
Since the expiration of the national eviction moratorium and the exhaustion of emergency rental assistance funds, the number of families facing eviction has returned to – or in some cases, exceeded – pre-pandemic levels.
Haas said the greater Tampa Bay region falls in the category of places in the U.S. where things are worse than they were three years ago.
And vulnerable groups, like Black and Latino renters are being hit harder. The Eviction Lab data shows that Black residents suffer 40 percent of evictions despite making up just 1 in 4 renters in the Tampa Bay region.
For these vulnerable groups, renters are often living one crisis away from eviction.
“Eviction is a traumatic event that hits people at their lowest points," Haas said. "It hits people right when they've been laid off from a job, it hits people right [at] the point of a health scare or an injury where they can't work. It's something that affects millions across the country every year.”
In fall of 2022, Bill had a steady job and a two-bedroom apartment that he shared with his rescue dog, Dora. He worked for Mueller Reports, a primary vendor for Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.
Then, in October, he got laid off.
“Unfortunately, [Hurricane] Ian came and as a result, they no longer needed property inspectors. They needed property adjusters, so they let go of 36 of us. And I happened to be one of the misfortunate ones,” he said.
His gig work, driving for Uber and Doordash, helped him cover some expenses, like food. But his housing costs were mounting fast.
By February, he owed his landlord four months rent with interest, which added up to more than $3,000.
Soon after, he found a three-day notice on his door.
“There is a crisis in the lack of housing, and there’s a crisis in the lack of affordable housing. And so people cannot move, they are literally moving out when the sheriff comes and puts them out.”- Robin Stover, director of housing at Gulf Coast Legal Services
This is the start of the eviction process in Florida. Renters have three days to pay the outstanding rent, or leave.
If the renter can’t do either, like Bill, an official lawsuit is filed against them.
“There were no attorneys available pro bono – the legal organizations around here were inundated with requests … so I had to do it pro se,” he said.
That means Bill tried to fight the eviction without legal help.
Robin Stover, with Gulf Coast Legal Services, said that's becoming more common as organizations that offer free legal help aren’t able to keep up with the rise in evictions.
"We get dozens of calls every day. And there is absolutely no way that we can attend to all of those calls,” she said.
In response to the growing need, Stover highlights a new online legal resource that helps Florida renters facing eviction build responses to the court.
Looking back at Bill’s case, she spots a few common mistakes, like filing a motion too late and failing to provide proof to the court about a claim.
Even so, Stover said it’s unlikely it would have changed the outcome for Bill.
That’s because there’s rarely a valid defense against eviction for nonpayment. Really, she said, the goal is to buy someone an extra day or two before losing their home.
Even then, Stover said people are struggling to make arrangements before the sheriff shows up on their doorstep.
“There is a crisis in the lack of housing, and there’s a crisis in the lack of affordable housing,” she said. “And so people cannot move, they are literally moving out when the sheriff comes and puts them out.”
For Bill, that day came in March.
The cost of eviction
Before he was put out on the street, Bill entrusted his treasured artwork and his dog with two neighbors. He donated the rest of his belongings to the Salvation Army. Then, he started calling shelters in town.
“I began to educate myself on the potential of becoming homeless,” he said. “So I investigated it and phoned a few shelters to find out that they were all full.”
The only open shelter he found was one run by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. It's a place where former inmates live but it also takes in people without housing when there’s room.
When the knock at Bill’s door came, that’s where he headed.
“I didn’t have much time in order to get very many possessions,” he said. “Just the basics, personal care items, documents…you can imagine going on a camping trip, you tend not to bring too much that’s not really useful.”
He's since found a job near the shelter cleaning cars and is trying to save up some money.
But there’s still a lot to do before he can start searching for an apartment.
“I’ve got bigger fish to fry at the moment,” he said, like finding stable employment and attempting to remove the eviction from his record.
Bill said he’s optimistic but he worries it might take a long time to get back on his feet. He wishes government officials would do more to help people in his situation.
"It's frightening. It's concerning at the least. Something needs to be done," Bill said. "But the haves aren't interested in what happens to the have-nots. And that's just my humble observation."
Bill takes one last drag of his cigarillo, pushes off the curb and heads back toward the shelter. On the way back, he whispers his favorite saying of late: "Que sera, sera."
Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.