HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Facing eviction, Tampa resident Stephanie Shea chose homelessness over becoming the Hester Prynne of renters.
“That 'Scarlet E' is going to stay on your record,” Shea said.
After being laid off last March, Shea used her savings and unemployment benefits to pay bills. But by November she was behind on rent and her landlord filed for eviction.
That’s when Shea negotiated a deal with her landlord.
“If I agreed to leave, they would not put the eviction on my record,” the 49-year-old said.
So on New Year’s Day Shea, with nowhere to live, Shea started sleeping in her car. It was the first time she had ever been without a place to call home.
“I didn't know it would be as traumatic as it has been.”
Since March 15, 2020, landlords have filed more than 9,200 evictions in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to www.evictionlab.org. About 40,000 evictions have been filed around the state. The current moratorium does not stop courts from processing the filings and those records are never erased.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) has introduced two new bills to change that for COVID-19 pandemic-related evictions.
“I wanted to add two solutions for evictions, one by mediation and a second by sealing the record,” he said.
Senate Bill 412 calls for mediation between landlords and tenants before the case goes through the court system.
Senate Bill 926 would seal the records of anyone evicted from their home due to reduced income during the pandemic.
And in Miami, Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) introduced Senate Bill 576, which would prevent landlords from turning away renters based on a pandemic-related eviction.
“It is strictly for people who fell on hard times during COVID,” Jones said.
Chib Anderson manages 70 Tampa area rentals mostly for landlords who don’t own many rental properties. She supports mediation and other relief for COVID-related evicted tenants, but not erasing court records.
“I think it is only fair that the landlords get a true picture of this person,” she said.
Most landlords conduct background checks that detect a pattern when it comes to prospective tenant's bill-paying history, she said, and should have access to all available information when considering a potential tenant.
“I think they should be able to see that, it is their home,” she said. “That is their biggest asset.”
But Shea says tenants like her, who couldn’t afford the rent because of the pandemic, should be able to wipe that part of their rental history clean.
That is something Rouson says is clear in the parameters of Senate Bill 926. The bill states the eviction must be... "based upon nonpayment of rent if the complaint was filed on or after March 1, 2020, and if the court finds that the tenant was adversely impacted by COVID-19."
“We are not trying to award bad behavior we are trying to secure adequate housing,” Rouson said.
Lawmakers will consider these bills when the session starts March 2.
The bills will have to be accepted and approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Meanwhile, Taking Action Reporter Jackie Callaway, connected Stephanie Shea with the Tampa Hillsborough Housing Initiative and they are working to help her get into a local shelter.