TAMPA BAY — As Hurricane Ian came ashore, flood waters raced into Ernest Perry and his girlfriend Britany Butler’s Fort Myers ground-floor apartment. Perry said the swirling brown water rose from ankle to waist deep in 30 minutes.
“It was like a blur. it happened so fast,” Perry said.
Butler told ABC Action News they felt trapped after the water reached the window line.
“The water was almost up to the window line because in your head, you're thinking I can't go out the front door,” Perry recalled.
The couple grabbed their pet fish, a laptop, and little else before crawling on top of a dresser and escaped through a window. The two swam in the flood waters to a set of stairs that got them to the second floor of the complex.
Perry and Butler fled Fort Myers the next day, and now they're starting over in Tampa. Butler said friends and family who donated to their Go Fund Me page made it possible to get into a new apartment, but they are having to replace all they’ve lost.
“Just having to start over, starting over, it's been tough,” Butler opined.
But that was just the beginning of their story.
After the storm, Perry said he texted his landlord about his deposit and last month's rent.
“I was asking her repeatedly for my security deposit back and my last month's rent,” said Perry.
Perry said the landlord texted back, telling him they would have to clean out their belongings to get the security deposit back. They returned to Fort Myers and found most of what they owned mud soaked or moldy. Butler described the smell inside as overpowering.
“It smelled so bad. That was probably the worst part, was the smell,” Perry said.
The two left their apartment without removing anything out of concern for their safety. Then Perry made a call for action. His lease stated if the unit is destroyed, money owed to the tenant must be returned in 30 days. It doesn't say anything about cleaning up.
ABC Action News asked Consumer Attorney Charles Gallagher about the tenant’s rights in this case.
“I think the landlord has a clear obligation to return the deposit in whole, given it was a hurricane that caused the unit to become uninhabitable,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher continued, saying he can’t see a judge siding with a landlord who demands a tenant clean up an uninhabitable dwelling after a natural disaster. ABC Action News left a message for Perry’s landlord. She did not return the call, but days later, she refunded Perry’s last month’s rent. According to the lease, she has until the end of the month to return his security deposit.
When it comes to security deposits in general, the landlord must return your deposit in 15 days. If they are going to keep a portion of that money, they have 30 days to provide you with a written notice of how much and why.
Anyone who feels the landlord is holding their deposit in error they can file a complaint with Florida’s Dept. of Ag and Consumer Services at www.fdacs.gov for mediation or file a claim in small claims court.