Legal loophole leaves out some vulnerable tenants from housing protections

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Timothy Wade Clark looked over a pile of furniture thrown onto the sidewalk. Tables, chairs and miscellaneous items stacked in the early autumn sun, standing out against the manicured lawns visible around the cul-de-sac.

He pointed to several trash bags leaning against what used to be his front door. More personal items, he said, including clothes. It wasn’t much – but he came from nothing. Before he found this house, Clark was homeless.

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“Going through so many bad situations and dealing with your situation for so long, you kind of hope that you stand on the other side of the rainbow,” he said.

Clark thought his rainbow came in the form of this blue two-bedroom house when his insurance company told him a bed was available. His belief grew when the landlord told him she was a registered nurse who could help him deal with his mental health issues and help him move on with his life, he recalled.

Clark said his perception of the residence began to change when he moved in. His roommates were not capable of taking care of themselves, he explained, and he noticed mold growing. The fridge was broken and the tub didn’t drain properly.

He said his landlord told him these were his problems to take care of. After he grew tired of the problems not getting fixed, he called Orange County Code Enforcement. An inspection report confirmed the poor conditions inside the home.

READ: Rental assistance payments were on the way. He was evicted anyway.

Days after that inspection, his belongings were on the street.

Second chances

Clark had found a home inside a larger network of dozens of properties. Single family homes across Central Florida converted by LLCs into Independent Living Facilities (ILFs), marketed specifically toward homeless adults trying to get back on their feet.

They often come with pleasant-sounding names. State records and websites show the companies are often operated as small businesses by individuals or pairs.

Attorney Michael Brevda of Senior Justice Law Firm said Clark’s experience is one he’s heard of before. He said the homes operate within a loophole in Florida’s legal code that was intended to protect vulnerable adults who didn’t have the same leverage as ordinary tenants. Outside of the eviction itself, which he couldn’t comment on, he wasn’t sure any laws had been broken.

READ: Evictions in Orange, Osceola counties increase after moratorium lifted

“Our legislature in Florida has passed a Resident’s Bill of Rights for nursing home residents under Chapter 400. They’ve passed a Resident’s Bill of Rights for assisted living facility residents under Chapter 429,” he listed. “There is no such protection for residents in independent living facilities.”

Brevda said there are even laws that target facilities geared toward mental health patients. Since the homes within this network stick to homelessness as their issue – with passing references to mental health – the state has little to no regulatory oversight over these homes, he added.

So, how do clients like Clark even come across such properties? Clark and Brevda provided the same information: insurance companies find them as they search for a home to place difficult clients relying on social security checks.

Brevda said once a place is green-lit, it’s a guaranteed income stream for the landlord. He said his firm usually got involved only when tenants got hurt trying to care for themselves.

READ: Central Florida evictions grind to halt, lawyer says landlords are struggling

“If the whistle gets blown at one single facility, it doesn’t interrupt the gravy train,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how many ILFs of this manner operate within Florida. “They have a captive resident population, they know they’re coming. So, at that point they’re just trying to scrimp and cut costs and try to maximize the profit.”

Possible reform

On the surface, the LLCs are solving the problem they set out to tackle: giving housing to the homeless, which falls under the “housing first” trend that homeless advocates now push for. Place a person inside a home, then address other problems like work and mental health.

However, advocacy groups operating within that model continue to work with the tenants after they move in, offering guidance and structure as the people re-acclimate to society.

Eyewitness News tried to speak with the owners of the two LLCs connected to Clark’s home: Bridge the Gap, LLC and Second Chance Housing, LLC, to hear their managers’ perspectives on how their properties were run and to refute any of Clark’s claims.

Efforts to track down his landlord came up empty after the man who answered the door at the apartment paperwork listed said he didn’t know her.

READ: Supreme Court allows evictions to resume during pandemic

Second Chance Housing’s address led to a box inside a UPS store. The company’s owner didn’t return a phone call or an email.

On Eyewitness News’ third visit to the neighborhood Tuesday night, residents at one of the other homes in the area defended their landlord, saying they were good people who generally kept up with their property. They called Clark’s situation an anomaly, possibly caused by his roommates.

State Representative Tray McCurdy (D-Orange County) was interested in reform when he visited the neighborhood that Clark used to call home. McCurdy suggested that a relatively minor addition to Florida’s laws could close the loophole in question, protecting tenants in places whose managers were ignoring their living conditions.

“These folks aren’t asking for anything that you and I wouldn’t ask for,” he said. “They’re asking for a decent living dwelling, right? I think that’s fair.”

McCurdy said it was possible he would use his final bill submission to recommend the necessary changes during the upcoming legislative session, granting ILF tenants a bill of rights similar to one that protects tenants living in other types of facilities.

READ: Eviction cases piling up in Central Florida as moratorium ends

Brevda said that would be an ideal solution.

“Without this kind of legal protection for these vulnerable residents who can’t really vocalize complaints or issues, it’s really hard for the government to come in and inspect and make sure that these bare essentials are being provided,” he said.

When asked how the oversight could have been created, McCurdy didn’t mince words.

“People don’t always take them serious,” he said. “They don’t always respect them because of their background.”

READ: Evictions in Orange, Osceola counties increase after moratorium lifted

Clark’s former home is no longer listed on Orange County Code Enforcement’s list of active cases. Bridge the Gap Housing began the formal shutdown process just a few days after officers made their inspection. A neighbor said the home was once again occupied, but he didn’t know who was signing the lease agreements.

As for Clark, he spent two weeks on the streets before the next Social Security check helped him find another place to live. He was encouraged by the possibility that others would be helped, though he also called McCurdy’s solution a minimum.

“They scream that mental health matters,” he said. “It doesn’t. All the time it’s this stuff really matters and when it hits home, and that’s the only time that people show humanitarian empathy.”

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