To All Those Affected,
As April 1st draws closer and the economy grinds to a halt, I find it prudent to reach out to all those who have been affected by the suspension of their primary income source and the looming threat of not being able to meet their financial obligations. As history begins to repeat itself in the case of a state or national emergency, many landlords and tenants find themselves ill-informed on how to conduct their affairs with respect to their legal rights and obligations. For that reason, this particular message is directed at rent-paying tenants and rent-collecting landlords.
If you have been following the news, you may be aware by now that there have been moratoriums placed on evictions. Today, I can confirm that these moratoriums are in place in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties. The moratorium does not mean your rental obligations have been suspended or abated in any way; you should continue to pay rent. If you fail to make your rent payments and the moratorium on evictions is lifted, you will be at risk of your landlord commencing eviction proceedings. While there have been calls from state and local politicians for a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments, there has been no official action or resolution on these issues. What the moratorium on evictions means for renters is that local law enforcement in not executing writs of possession and you cannot be removed from your rental during the period in which this moratorium in effect. In other words, your landlord cannot remove you from your rental, only the sheriff can do so. If your landlord has personally or, through some third party other than the sheriff, removed you from your rental, he or she has violated the Florida Residential Landlord Tenant Act and could be subject to liability for damages. Under Florida law, your landlord cannot turn off any utilities, change the locks, or engage in any other prohibited conduct proscribed in Section 83.67, Florida Statutes, to coerce a tenant to vacate the premises, regardless of the circumstances. This is what is referred to as a “self-help eviction.” During a moratorium or state declared emergency, this could rise to the level of criminality.
Eviction proceedings should be taken seriously by tenants for the following reasons: (1) they impact your rental history, which can prove troublesome in finding future housing; (2) you can be held responsible for your landlord’s attorney’s fees and costs, if they prevail on the eviction; (3) you can be held responsible for past due rent if the eviction is based on non-payment of rent; and/or (4) you may forfeit your entire security deposit if the eviction is based on non-payment of rent. The point is, evictions have a lasting effect that many tenants may not be aware of and the ability to secure future housing could be the most devastating consequence, especially in a locality where housing is scarce.
On the other hand, actions for damages should be taken seriously by landlords for the following reasons: (1) if you engage in a self-help eviction, you can be liable to the tenant for actual and consequential damages or 3 months’ rent, whichever is greater, and costs, including attorney’s fees and costs; (2) you can be liable for damages you caused to your tenant; (3) you can be held responsible for your tenant’s attorney’s fees and costs, if they prevail in their civil action.
It is worth noting that security deposits are not to be considered rent by the tenant or landlord. Additionally, last month’s rent, if paid in advance, only applies to the last month of the tenant’s tenancy and cannot be applied to earlier months, without the express consent of the landlord. Most written rental agreements require that any modifications be made in a signed writing. If this is the case, you should not rely on your landlord or tenants verbal representations. On the contrary, you should ensure that the modification is in writing and signed by all parties to the rental agreement. If you are a tenant facing a financial hardship that would impact your ability to pay your next month’s rent, I strongly recommend that you open a dialogue with your landlord. The biggest pitfall that I have experienced in resolving landlord/tenant issues is a gross lack of communication between landlord and tenant. Many landlord/tenant issues can be resolved by a simple discussion. With that being said, most landlords are reasonable and willing to negotiate a mutually beneficial compromise that advances the interests of both sides. You should not take matters into your own hands by withholding rent; landlords also have their own financial obligations to meet each month.
To all the landlords out there: If you have the financial ability, this is a call to action to work with your tenants in these dire times. It is no secret that nearly every non-essential business is now closed. There are several ways of providing relief to your rent-paying tenants, whether it’s a full abatement of rent or even a partial abatement of rent for 30 days, 60 days, or some other agreeable time period. You can always collect additional payments in the future when this national emergency comes to an end. As always, you should also ensure that all modifications are in a signed writing, for your benefit and for the benefit of your tenant(s).
For your convenience, I have included a link for download of a very generic addendum that can be used to modify any written rental agreement. As always, this law office remains open and committed to fielding any questions that you may have about your particular situation. You can reach us at (305) 900-4029 or by emailing the undersigned attorney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angelo M. Martin, Esq.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this message should be construed as legal advice, nor does this communication confer any attorney-client relationship. This message is to be received for general informational purposes. Each situation presents its own unique set of facts and details, which may require independent evaluation by a licensed attorney. You should always consult with an attorney before taking any action which may affect your legal rights or responsibilities.