Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Helps Floridians Fight Evictions

Six months since Florida’s initial statewide shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic—in spite of largely reopening—Florida is last among the 50 states in recovering from massive job losses, according to a report by personal finance site WalletHub.

Home to more than 1.1 million of the nation’s nearly 18 million unemployed, the state saw a 1,003.71% increase in unemployment claims during a single week in August 2020, compared to the same week in 2019.

Meanwhile, a statewide eviction moratorium ended August 1. In its place, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order that gives tenants facing eviction for nonpayment a COVID-related defense—a defense they must raise within five days of being served with an eviction complaint. Also, on September 4, the CDC issued an order that provides a completely different mechanism for tenants: a multi-part declaration that must be provided to the landlord, assuming the tenant qualifies.

So, what to do in a state where roughly half of the state’s residents qualify for civil legal aid, a landlord-friendly state with a unique “pay to play” structure for tenants, where the state bar and state court system provide zero document assembly systems for use by tenants (all forms currently available are for landlords), where the Supreme Court Task Force on IOTA is currently working on proposals that would end all statewide website-based assistance for legal aid eligible clients, in addition to wrecking the existing Bar Foundation IOTA structure, and a state (one of only three!) that provides zero general funding for civil legal aid?

Easy; the lawyers and staff at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), working with housing lawyers around the state and using open source software (Docassemble), created online tools to enable those facing eviction to create their own eviction responses or CDC Declaration. JALA stood up this site, FloridaEvictionHelp.org, and is hosting it.

An important early step was obtaining funding from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Also critically important was having staff in place who were experienced at building document assembly tools.

Fortunately, JALA had experience with two prior tools: the first is used in JALA’s eviction conditions clinic, headed by housing attorney Suzanne Garrow, where tenants facing conditions issues that go without repair despite requests to the landlord use a form of the tool to construct the notice required by Florida law before a tenant can withhold the rent or terminate the lease early.

The second, used in JALA’s “low bono” family law unit, FLARE (Family Law at Reduced Expense) is designed to assist applicants who fall between 200 and 400% of the poverty guidelines and was constructed under the supervision of family law low bono director Marquita Green.

Building off of JALA’s prior experience in document assembly tools fell to the head of JALA’s housing unit, Mary DeVries, with help from Suzanne Garrow, JALA’s CTO, Virgil Bachtold, Aylmar Thompson, the paralegal assigned to JALA’s Veterans Services Unit, and a summer law clerk, Jack Ford. This team was responsible for writing the background logic for the tool, drafting all of the myriad pathways for users, testing the links and the question flow – and then updating everything with each new Executive Order from the Governor, each new pronouncement from HUD, and finally, the substantial change wrought by the CDC order.

Now, tenants who have received an eviction notice can go to FloridaEvictionHelp.org for automated online help preparing a response, which they are required to do within five days of being served. As referenced, JALA hosts this tool statewide, and numerous legal aid firms and other non-profits have linked to the tool to assist those whom legal aid would never be able to reach with individual service.

Visiting the website starts a guided interview that asks the user a series of questions, based primarily on the eviction complaint. Following the interview to its conclusion allows users to produce an answer with tailored affirmative defenses and, if appropriate, a motion to determine rent.

Separately, the site now includes links to create the declaration included within the CDC order, with instructions for serving the landlord. As an aside, if a tenant has served the declaration, an affirmative defense alleging the CDC order’s applicability is included within the answer tool.

Following the launch of the tool, DeVries, Garrow, and Kowalski all participated in numerous media interviews, in an attempt to dispel misconceptions surrounding the various moratoriums and orders and to direct users to the site.

The project is an example of how critical technology is to meeting the needs of those who cannot afford to hire an attorney, which is generally the case for tenants facing eviction. According to global advisory firm Stout, more than 44% of the state’s renter households are unable to pay rent, and are therefore at risk of eviction.

JALA’s experience also highlights the need for in-house lawyers and staff who are comfortable with technology tools like Docassemble and with the concept of guided interviews in general. Finally, the construction of FloridaEvictionHelp.org demonstrates that such state-wide, critically needed tools can (and should) be built by legal aid lawyers with the subject matter expertise to both develop the solution and tailor that solution to fit the at-risk individuals most in need.

About the Author

Jim Kowalski (jim.kowalski@jaxlegalaid.org) is the president and CEO of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, (www.jaxlegalaid.org) a nonprofit civil legal aid firm in Jacksonville, FL.

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