In his two dozen years investigating investor fraud, Michael Fuchs has seen a lot of loss.
But what he’s witnessed in his few short weeks on Sarasota’s housing crisis has left him truly stunned.
“It hasn’t taken me long to realize how big the problem is here,” Fuchs said of residents’ dire circumstances.
Fuchs, 64, is the new pro bono attorney focused on housing issues for Gulfcoast Legal Serviceswhich is located in the Venice offices of the United Way of South Sarasota County.
Fuchs joined the legal aid agency in mid-June after receiving his Florida credentials, volunteering to assist the office as it handles a surge in eviction cases.
After 25 years with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC, Fuchs had retired in 2021 as senior counsel in the division of enforcement.
Settling in the area with his wife, Sharon, he soon found himself missing the collegiality of a law office and wanting to serve his new community.
Now, after brushing up on Florida’s landlord-tenant laws, he will be spending at least two days a week helping residents face rising rents and evictions as well as those enduring delays getting insurance checks related to Hurricane Ian.
So far, Fuchs said he has been struck by the region’s housing crisis and the severe impact on his fellow retirees. While in his previous work he dealt with victims of Ponzi schemes or investment fraud that wiped out huge sums of money or retirement savings, the plight of his current clients seems even worse.
About to lose their housing, many of them have no assets or family to fall back on.
“Not only are they living only on Social Security, a lot of them are still working in their 70s,” Fuchs said of local residents caught in the housing crisis. “I’ve been very surprised to see the number of seniors still working not because they want to, but because they have to.”
For Robin Stover, Gulfcoast’s housing unit deputy director and the agency’s sole housing attorney in Sarasota County, Fuchs’ addition comes at a perfect time.
“I’m really looking forward to having a steady and experienced lawyer helping to serve and navigate the eviction process for our vulnerable tenants,” she said.
Last year, the agency provided legal services for housing matters to 155 families in the county – half of those after Hurricane Ian, which prompted a surge in evictions, she said. In the first six months of this year, the office has helped 54 families with housing issues.
Some reports put Florida second in the nation among rising rates of evictions and foreclosures.
Given Fuchs’ experience and background, Stover welcomed his help negotiating with landlords and tenants on leases or move-out dates when rents were being raised or eviction looms.
“You would be surprised, when they get into this situation, a week or two makes a huge difference,” Stover said of tenants. “Oftentimes, people are in shock and the task seems overwhelming that they need every hour they can get to plan and to make alternative arrangements. And sometimes those arrangements are very stark and very severe – like packing up the car.”
Fuchs will also be working in the South County office alongside housing navigator Phil Heller. heller, brought in last year through a United Way Suncoast grantwas initially tasked with helping residents access emergency rental assistance but since Ian has been able to pivot to disaster recovery.
Stover said that Fuchs’ standing as an attorney and his generosity of spirit were greatly needed and appreciated.
“Coming forward now and being able to be so committed to Gulfcoast is an incredible gift,” she said. “We will put his time and expertise for very valuable use.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: More help for Sarasota residents with housing issues
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