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How evictions affect the Tampa Bay region's most vulnerable residents

A woman in a gray dresss sits on a bench in the lobby of a courthouse.
Gabriella Paul
WUSF Public Media
Tonda Tyson, 66, sits in the lobby of the courthouse in downtown Tampa. She first visited the courthouse in May to respond to her eviction filing.

An eviction on your record can make it tough to find a place to live. But fighting the eviction in court can be costly. And it doesn’t always help.

Evictions in the greater Tampa Bay region surged last year compared to pre-2020 levels. That’s a trend felt nationwide, as emergency rental assistance put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic dried up, and as federal protections that were put in place to make sure people who were out of work didn’t lose their homes expired.

WUSF’s Gabriella Paul, who covers paycheck to paycheck issues, has been following the story over the last several months, talking with renters, landlords, and experts who are tracking the data on evictions and working to help people stay in their homes and deal with the legal fallout from evictions.

Paul joins Florida Matters to talk more about her reporting on evictions and their impact on people who’ve lost their homes. Also joining the show is Tom DiFiore with Bay Area Legal Services.

Paul said even to get a court hearing to fight an eviction can be difficult.

"According to Florida law, you have to as someone that is facing an eviction for nonpayment, you must cure your rent or not be in default in order to earn a court hearing to fight that eviction in court in Florida."

Paul said in many cases renters facing eviction have to navigate the legal system on their own.

"There's also just a historic, you know, large amount of folks that are in need of this legal help. So it's not a given that you'll be able to receive advice and or representation."

DiFiore said Bay Area Legal Services is "the only game in town" for people who need free legal help to fight an eviction. With 1,000 to 1,500 evictions filed per month in the Tampa Bay region, "it's obvious that we can't meet all the need," said DiFiore.

"We have a sort of a triage system. And there are certain cases we can take certain we can't."

So how many more attorneys would he need to handle all those cases?

"That's a good question. I think, you know, even with 5, 6, 7, 8 more lawyers, we couldn't meet the need."

In the meantime, he said, Bay Area Legal Services is working to develop more "pro se materials" to help people navigate the court system without a lawyer.

He said one of the toughest questions facing renters on the brink of eviction is whether it's worth paying the rent owed to go to court.

"You can go to court, put your money and ... you lose your money, and you're still evicted."

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.