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Florida Realtors Group Challenges Eviction Moratorium

Eviction notice with face mask on top of envelope. Financial crisis due to covid-19 pandemic concept.
Federal and state officials halted evictions last year as COVID-19 caused massive job losses.

A major Florida real-estate group is challenging a federal moratorium on evicting renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group Florida Realtors filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Tampa that described the moratorium imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “an unprecedented and unlawful federal administrative order.”

The lawsuit contends that the CDC overstepped its legal authority in imposing the moratorium, which is scheduled to expire June 30.

“The CDC predicates this unprecedented action on its statutory authority to prevent the interstate spread of disease, but that authority does not make the CDC the nation’s landlord-in-chief any more than it places the CDC in charge of citizens’ social media or the national minimum wage,” the lawsuit said.

Federal and state officials, through a series of actions, moved to halt evictions last year as COVID-19 caused massive job losses, illnesses and deaths. While Congress and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had taken earlier steps to halt evictions, the CDC issued an order in September that was extended through subsequent orders.

In the latest extension, dated March 28, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pointed to health dangers of renters being evicted during the pandemic.

“In short, evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family or congregate settings such as homeless shelters,” the order said. “The ability of these settings to adhere to best practices, such as social distancing and other infection control measures, decreases as population increases.”

The Orlando-based Florida Realtors, known in the past as the Florida Association of Realtors, has about 200,000 members, including members who lease property to tenants, according to the lawsuit. A Pinellas County real-estate firm, R.W. Caldwell Inc., also is a plaintiff in the case.

The CDC order requires tenants who seek protection under the moratorium to provide a declaration that they meet certain criteria related to issues such as income, job losses and inability to make full rental payments. The lawsuit cited examples of property R.W. Caldwell manages, such as a tenant who has not paid rent in five months and is delinquent by about $4,375.

Congress in March passed a federal stimulus law, known as the American Rescue Plan Act, that provides money for rental-payment assistance, but it did not end the moratorium, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Carlton Fields firm, focuses heavily on the authority of the CDC to impose the moratorium, including saying that the moratorium, “as originally adopted or thereafter extended, is not authorized by any power enumerated to the Congress or to the executive branch.”

“The power to interfere with private contracts between landlord and tenant, forcing a landlord to continue as such and prohibiting the landlord from exercising contractual and state-based rights to repossess property from non-paying residential tenants who materially breach their lease agreements, is not contained within the Constitution and any enumerated power,” the lawsuit said.

But Walensky’s March order emphasized that the moratorium is designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This order does not relieve any individual of any obligation to pay rent, make a housing payment or comply with any obligation to pay rent, make a housing payment or comply with any other obligation that the individual may have under a tenancy, lease or similar contract,” the order said.

“Nothing in this order precludes the charging or collecting of fees, penalties or interest as a result of the failure to pay rent or other housing payments on a timely basis, under the terms of any applicable contract.”