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In South Florida, eviction spares few
If South Florida is a barometer for the housing crisis and the economy, the forecast does not look good.
MIAMI — In a decade handling evictions for the Miami-Dade County Police Department, Albert Fernandez has run across a middle-class father bankrupted by his daughter’s cancer treatment; an old woman scammed by a gambling husband; and countless families perpetually on the edge of poverty.
But he has never turned out as many people as he does now.
It used to take a day or two for officers to get to an address after tenants received a notice to leave. Now, with evictions up by roughly a third over last year, Miami-Dade’s backlog is around two weeks, sometimes longer.
“It is what it is,” Officer Fernandez said, looking at a list of addresses about to be emptied. “People of all walks of life are getting evicted.”
If South Florida is a barometer for the housing crisis and the economy, the forecast does not look good. Like other areas nationwide, evictions are rising throughout the state, clogging county courts and spawning a boom in companies that specialize in “eviction services” like moving furniture to the curb.
In the first three months of this year, Broward County tallied 3,043 eviction requests — more than it has received in the same period since at least 1999, and an increase of 54 percent over last year. In Miami-Dade, landlords filed for 4,726 evictions from January through April, up 1,157 from the first four months of last year.
Much of the rise comes from foreclosures, which in Miami-Dade County jumped to 311 in January 2008 from 38 in January 2007, but more renters and business owners are also finding themselves unable to pay the bills.
In many cases, one failure leads to another. Owners, banks, renters and developers have become like prisoners attached by ankle chains: when one falls, the others slip too.
Visits to nearly a dozen properties with Officer Fernandez and his partner, Officer Charles Veiga, included several stops in which both renters and owners seemed to be struggling.
Around noon, the officers pulled into a comfortable development in Doral, where a young woman in a red shirt could be seen carrying large garbage bags out of a second-story apartment.
The woman, who identified herself only as Maria, said that she was an accountant, a mother of three, and that she was being evicted because of a double whammy: she had fallen behind in paying the $1,450 a month in rent and her landlord could no longer afford the mortgage and condominium fees, pushing the property toward foreclosure.
The problems, she said, began about a year ago when the estranged father of her children lost his job at a mortgage company and stopped paying regular child support.
“The situation is bad for everyone — me, the landlord, the father of my kids too,” said Maria, 36, who would only give her first name because she feared her new landlord would discover her financial troubles. She added that after nearly a decade in Miami, she had started asking relatives in Guatemala for help.
“It’s ridiculous to have to move money from my country to here,” she said. “This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
At another apartment building in an older, poorer area, the owner, Concepcion Rosado, 71, arrived and confronted a couple that had stopped paying the rent several months ago after four years in the apartment.
Tears streamed down the cheeks of Alisa Soriano, 48, as she begged for mercy in a dark, sparsely furnished living room. The rent was $640 a month. She said she would find work soon and so would her boyfriend, a carpenter who stood beside her, silent, with paint splotched on his jeans.
“I won’t fail you,” Ms. Soriano told her landlord in Spanish, between wails. “I won’t fail you. I won’t fail you.”
Mrs. Rosado nodded. In her hand, she held the tenants’ final effort: $300 in cash and a check for $700. “It’s just that I have to pay taxes,” she said. “I have to pay insurance. It’s very complicated.”
Ms. Soriano cried. “Ay, Dios mío,” Mrs. Rosado said.
The couple had bounced checks in the past and $1,000 was not enough to cover their back rent. But Mrs. Rosado and her daughter, Vivian, a real estate lawyer, decided to let them stay, at least for another month. “We know these are hard times,” Vivian Rosado said.
Back in the patrol car, Officer Fernandez agreed. “Sometimes we go to the same apartment building three, four times a week,” he said.
The neighborhoods have varied, from the upper-middle class to the down and out. In recent years, he has done evictions on properties owned or inhabited by drug dealers, former N.F.L. stars and renters who try to hide by removing the numbers of their address.
“The hardest ones are the old ladies,” Officer Fernandez said. Many have been victimized by relatives who took out a home equity loan, often with a forged signature, and then never paid the money back.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You think of them as your grandmother or grandfather.”
These days, however, most houses are empty when the police arrive.
Many evictions go something like what occurred when Officer Fernandez pulled into the parking lot at the Villas at Midway, where a bank had foreclosed two weeks earlier on a two-story condominium.
Christopher J. Fedor was waiting with a drill in hand. “We do evictions, trash outs, rehabs,” he said.
Mr. Fedor had been hired by HSBC, the bank that now owned the property. His job was to change the lock, check the property for damage and clean it out.
In this case, the apartment was nearly spotless. Often, items have been left behind. At one apartment Officer Fernandez visited last week, there was a single white tube sock on the floor of an upstairs bedroom; at another, a teddy bear with blue feet smiled from the top of a dirty stove.
“We had one the other day with a three-foot-long snake under a bed where a baby had been sleeping,” Mr. Fedor said, his voice echoing off the blank walls and tile floors. “Miami-Dade fire and rescue had to take it away.”
Mr. Fedor seemed busy, determined, even a bit frantic with the energy of an entrepreneur in the midst of a boom. He said his company, Florida Field Services, started doing evictions a year ago. Since then, he said, business has doubled.
“We work seven days a week,” he said.
Owners of other eviction companies, like Proeviction.com, which offers help with an eviction in any Florida County for around $400, also said customers seemed to be lining up. When they were asked if they saw any sign of a turnaround, of the market’s bottom, their answers were clear.
“We see it getting worse,” Mr. Fedor said. “And worse. And worse.”