Despite eviction notices, some choose to stay

In the days after Hurricane Michael made landfall, many proprietors of low-income apartments across Bay County began posting eviction notices on the doors of tenants, giving them only 72 hours to vacate. Some residents caved to the pressure and unquestioningly fled while others were without options and stayed.

PANAMA CITY – In one of the seldom gusts through a breezeway of Macedonia Garden apartments, some the lighter pieces of trash skip across the ground like tumbleweeds in a wasteland.

Blue tarps flap on the roofs of buildings that weren’t obliterated by the devastating winds of Hurricane Michael. Some younger children climb on an uprooted and slanted tree stump as a few older kids ride dirt bikes along the parts of the sidewalks without debris blocking the way. Shingles, rubble and household trash litter the ground throughout the complex as residents sit in the shade of the breezeways, still without power and gas almost a month after the historic storm upended their lives.

Despite the desolate landscape and the lack of utilities — which maintenance workers on scene said have been suspended out of fire concerns — many people are still living in the low-income apartment complex. But that almost wasn’t the case.

“They were telling people they had to go,” said 62-year-old Geneath Gaines, sitting on a rollator in one of the breezeways. “I didn’t have anywhere to go. It was like telling people to be homeless just because a storm come.”

In the days after Hurricane Michael made landfall, many proprietors of low-income apartments across Bay County began posting eviction notices on the doors of tenants, giving them only 72 hours to vacate. Some residents caved to the pressure and unquestioningly fled while others were without options and stayed. At one point, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford became involved and noticed the landlords that they could not legally force anyone to leave without first going through the courts. Now, many people are still in the molding, wind-ravaged and trash-strewn apartments looking for answers.

Gaines, wearing a “Smile: It’s Free” t-shirt and a pair of glasses with a leg missing, has lived in Macedonia with her husband for more than 10 years. She remembers hearing stirrings around the apartments about evictions days after they had weathered the near Category 5 hurricane inside their unit. Among the drinking cups and clothes and debris littered outside her apartment, she later found an orange flyer with orders to vacate within 72 hours.

As she pulled back clothes in a closet Monday to reveal a large black splotch of mold on the wall, Gaines said she is in the process of getting a new place to live because of the health-detrimental conditions. She already suffers from seizures, takes several medications and uses the rollator to take breaks when she gets winded from walking. Gaines said it has been difficult to find housing closer than Tallahassee; but given only 72 hours to leave, it would have been impossible.

“It was real hectic,” Gaines said. “And I was just trying to keep myself calm. But when you don’t have anything, you can’t do anything. It takes money to move.”

It was almost by coincidence the eviction notices were caught before displacing thousands of low-income tenants throughout Bay County.

Gregory Dossie, a local community organizer and civil rights activist, had been coordinating supply giveaways in the community when on Oct. 16 – after walking to a wifi hotspot near his damaged home for cell phone service – he received an email asking if anyone else had received eviction notices. Dossie posted the question to a group chat on Whatsapp, a free messaging application, and received responses from attorneys who’d had similar experiences of landlords forcing out tenants after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Florence.

“In those places, they didn’t catch it until after,” Dossie said. “We caught it while it was in progress. A lot of these people didn’t know any better and were panicking and moving out of town.”

After receiving word about the evictions, some attorneys visited local low-income housing complexes and began passing out fliers to inform tenants about their rights, Dossie said.

On one hand, the attorneys had their hands tied because they couldn’t file injunctions in the court to stop the evictions – since Bay County court operations were temporarily halted by Hurricane Michael – but on the other hand, the landlords also couldn’t file eviction paperwork because of the state of the courts.

Dossie and others began going through local channels of law enforcement in the meantime and eventually garnered the attention of BCSO, which serves eviction notices after landlords go through the court process. In a social media post, Sheriff Ford reminded tenants of their rights to remain in a property when it has been damaged in a natural disaster despite landlords seeking to perform repairs or wanting to move themselves in.

“Lease agreements cannot be terminated by the landlord just because the landlord has been displaced and needs a place to stay,” Ford wrote. “Under Florida landlord-tenant law, there is a damage provision for tenants who wish to break the lease because of the damage to the rental unit. This provision becomes the controlling law in a natural disaster like Hurricane Michael. This is the case even if a tenant’s lease says something different.”

On Wednesday, BCSO went as far as to host a legal clinic for landlords and tenants to address residency questions. Despite the gesture, several low-income tenants – who either had their transportation damaged in the storm or did not have transportation beforehand – were unable to attend, according to social media posts.

Dossie said the 72-hour window did not even allow for the notice FEMA requires to come by and conduct an inspection to determine eligibility for housing vouchers. But with landlords going through the proper channels and extended notices of eviction, tenants now have a chance to receive assistance to move.

“Eventually they will have to move because of the mold,” Dossie said. “This buys them a little time to get things in order.”

While the actions provided Gaines with more time to plan her move, it is nonetheless a daunting prospect. She said she’s spent a large part of her life in Bay County and is having to throw out most of her belongings because of mold. Gaines said that the uncertainty in starting over, even with her husband by her side, would be scary.

“I’m trying to find something local, but the closest rentals for people on fixed incomes looks like Tallahassee,” Gaines said. “It’s difficult being older and going someplace you’re not used to.”

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