Miami-Dade may help renters in eviction court secure attorneys

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava vows to request funding from commission for next fiscal year

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Attorney
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (Wikipedia, iStock)

Laurel Pizarro had difficulty navigating the legal process when she tried to fight her eviction from a Miami apartment in March. She looks back on her day in court as hardly a fair one: She went on her own, but her landlord had an attorney.

Miami-Dade County is in the midst of an affordability crisis. Rent hikes in South Florida consistently outpace those in the rest of the nation, while incomes continue to lag, leaving many low-income renters to fight housing disputes without a lawyer.

“This is a problem not just for the families evicted. This is a problem for the entire community. Employers cannot get employees because they can’t afford to live here”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that she will request that county commissioners budget funding for legal representation for these tenants in the next fiscal year. She made her announcement at a downtown Miami event held by the Miami Workers Center to push for help with attorney costs.

Levine Cava’s vow also comes as commissioner Eileen Higgins put in an item for the county’s July 19 commission meeting to direct the county to assess the need for a Right to Counsel program for tenants in the eviction process or in disputes with landlords. Altogether, the legal aid tool is the latest the county is considering after unleashing a salvo of initiatives to ease the affordability crisis.

“This is a problem not just for the families evicted. This is a problem for the entire community. Employers cannot get employees because they can’t afford to live here,” Levine Cava told The Real Deal after the event. “People are moving away. It is really a total crisis for Miami-Dade County.”

In a June visit to Miami, U.S. Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge declared the county “the epicenter of the housing crisis in this country.”

South Florida rents rose 45.8 percent in May, year-over-year, marking the biggest hike nationwide, according to

Details for Miami-Dade’s potential Right to Counsel-type program, such as how much the county could budget for legal aid and the income levels to qualify are yet to be hammered out.

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Legal Services of Greater Miami, which provides free assistance to low-income residents, has been receiving roughly 80 calls a week from tenants in housing disputes, and is unable to take all the cases, as its nine attorneys already have full case loads, said Jeffrey Hearne, Legal Services’ director of litigation.

Legal Services generally targets tenants at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Hearne said. That is an annual income of $27,180 for a one-person household; $36,620 for two people; and $46,060 for three people, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

Others that have vowed to provide tenant representation if the county funds a Right to Counsel program include the Cuban American Bar Association and advocacy law firm Community Justice Project, Hearne said.

An eviction proceeding can move quickly and if tenants don’t file the correct response, they usually automatically lose, he said.

“A lot of tenants write a letter to the judge thinking that’s enough, that they will get an opportunity to go see a judge, but it’s not,” Hearne said. “Then they lose automatically, and next thing they know there is a writ of possession on their door.”

Pizarro, who also wrote a letter to the judge, saw the court side with her landlord and she had to move out.

Levine Cava, a former Legal Services attorney, said part of the affordability crisis issue is tied to state laws that “are not really written in favor of the needs of tenants.”

Florida prohibits local governments from imposing rent-control measures, except in cases where a county provides a study showing why rates should be capped. Miami-Dade is in the midst of conducting research for its rent-control study, and any plan for rent control will require voter approval at a November referendum. Still, under state law, rents can only be capped for up to a year.

In other initiatives, the county in May implemented a Tenant’s Bill of Rights that affords renters a 60-day eviction notice period and the right to deduct unit repair costs from the rent if the landlord had not fixed the issue. In March, the county commission also approved a 60-day notice requirement for rent hikes of 5 percent or more.

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