ORLANDO, Fla. — Eric Thruston knew he was fighting a losing battle.
“It’s almost like triumph is colliding with tragedy,” he said, looking around his half-empty apartment. “It’s a little odd.”
This was the place Thruston called home for five years. It was no mansion, but he loved it. He had a large porch to relax in and comfortable couches passed on to him from a family member. He enjoyed visits from friends and checked in on his elderly neighbor almost daily. A small lake behind his building provided excellent sunset views.
His time, though, was up. Bit by bit, Thruston placed his life into trash bags and took them to his neighbor’s place for safekeeping. He wasn’t sure where he would sleep that night — only that it couldn’t be here. The 24-hour eviction notice on his kitchen table made it clear.
The odd thing: the notice was unnecessary.
Down on his luck
Thruston’s story mirrors one shared by hundreds of thousands of Central Floridians since the spring of 2020. Life was manageable, until everything turned upside down. In mid-August, the hotel maintenance engineer found himself without a job as COVID-19 cases surged in the Sunshine State. The self-described “busy bee” was stuck on the couch after that.
Thruston was proud, though, and at first he wasn’t concerned. His skills and experience made him confident that he would land another job quickly. He missed his first rent payment ever, but applied to job after job with high exectations.
“I thought I could salvage this thing,” he said.
As the weeks passed, no one hired him. His attitude changed and his stubbornness wore off. Then came the reality check: an eviction process was started against him.
Six weeks after he missed his first payment, he filed for rental assistance through Our Florida, a state program designed to help tenants and landlord affected by the pandemic. It was billed as a win-win.
Thruston said his landlord wasn’t interested – and continued to pursue eviction against him as he waited for his application to be approved. They secured eviction on Nov. 9, one month after the case was open.
Soon after the judge’s decision, he received word that he had been hired by a new resort, in a job one step above his previous position and with a significant pay raise. Two days after that, Thruston’s application for rental assistance was approved. A total of $4,900 would be sent to his landlord to cover the three months Thruston missed, plus December and January’s rent.
He went to his leasing office to tell them of the good news: the eviction process could stop. They’d have their money in less than two weeks.
On Nov. 11, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door: even though checks were in the mail, Thruston had 24 hours to leave. The landlord wanted him out anyway, and there was nothing the man could do.
“It was a race to get the funding before the landlord and the landlord’s Council, could get a writ of possession,” he said. “They won the horse race.”
Friday afternoon, he glanced out the window, wondering when the deputy would return to escort him off the property.
The end of the race
Thruston’s situation appeared to be counterintuitive. By all accounts, he was a good tenant who wanted to stay in his home. By evicting him, the property manager was surrendering the thousands of dollars he owed and the steady income he was due to start providing again.
Attorney Mark Lippman said some landlords made the calculation and chose to work with their tenants. However, the ones who don’t are well within the law.
“If the judge ordered them to put money in the court registry and they didn’t put the money in, they’re entitled to judgment, by statute and case law,” he said. “Even if they come up with the money afterwards, the judgments been issued, so the landlord doesn’t have to do anything.”
Lippman was not connected to the case and couldn’t speak to the specifics of Thruston’s situation. However, he said in cases that he has worked on, large corporate landlords are more likely to pursue eviction once tenants fall behind on payments, unless a tenant was deep in the assistance process. His remarks suggested Thruston’s decision to initially try to solve his own problems were a fatal mistake.
When he chose to get help, Thruston turned to Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. Reached by phone Friday, two of the organization’s attorneys said his case highlighted a flaw with the rental assistance program they encountered again and again: in cases where the landlord isn’t working with the tenant, assistance approval takes longer than an eviction, meaning tenants can’t get the money on time.
The attorneys said the time factor was why people needed to act quickly after losing their jobs.
“If you have fallen behind on rent or are facing eviction, you need to take action,” one wrote in a text message statement. “Learn what your legal rights are and what options you have.”
They said in many cases, their clients didn’t realize they qualified for rental assistance, leading to them taking out loans to make ends meet. They couldn’t say how many landlords pursued eviction over working with the tenants, just that it happened more than rarely.
Once the deputy showed up at his door, Thruston knew he would be leaving. His last-minute call to a news outlet wasn’t to stop his eviction or save himself, but to warn others like him against making the same mistake by waiting to seek out help.
He also had a message to politicians who he believed left tenants like him with limited options.
“If tenants like me are served with an eviction summons and they’re currently enrolled in a program like Our Florida, I think that the tenant should be a little bit more protected,” he explained, calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to adjust the rules through an executive action.
As the sun began to fall, the last of Thruston’s possessions were carried out his front door to a friend’s waiting truck. The man tried to stay positive, leaving behind some items he didn’t care for in an effort to turn a new leaf over. He took a phone call from his soon-to-be boss, asking if Thruston didn’t mind working on his first day.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t win the horse race,” he said, with a wry grimace on his face. “I do feel traumatized, but I’m a survivor.”
A request for comment from Thruston’s property manager was not immediately returned Friday.