Following debate on the Eviction Prevention and Probate Assistance Program’s legality, and several other questions, renters facing eviction in South St. Petersburg will now receive pro bono legal services.
Despite concerns Chairperson Brandi Gabbard called “baffling,” the city council approved allocating $300,000 in tax increment financing (TIF) to the Community Law Program at its Sept. 28 meeting. The local nonprofit will provide eviction prevention and probate – the analysis and transfer of estate assets – assistance nearly 14 months after city officials first discussed the idea.
The pilot program does not require income statements and only includes residents living in the roughly 7.4-square-mile South St. Pete CRA. However, Gabbard noted that the average area income is about $31,000, about half the city’s total.
In addition, she said 30% of CRA children, 14% of seniors and 20% of all CRA residents live below the poverty line.
“That is the means testing,” Gabbard added. “So, quite frankly, I’m a little disappointed that we’re having this much concern.”
She explained that just a third of the funding would go toward eviction assistance. The other $200,000 would help people navigate probate court and remain in their dead relatives’ homes.
Councilmember Ed Montanari noted that 821 St. Petersburg residents faced evictions from Aug. 26, 2022, through the end of January 2023. Nearly 25% lived in the CRA.
That means 75% originated in other areas, and Montanari said 90% were due to nonpayment. The average past-due amount was $3,159.
He expressed concern that the pilot program would violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection laws, as it would only benefit certain renters. City Attorney Bradley Tennant said state statute allows municipalities to use TIF dollars taken from a specific area to reinvest in the CRA.
He elaborated that the program funding must align with the South St. Pete plan. Tennant said preventing homelessness and supporting home ownership are part of the CRA’s goals.
Montanari also said the program could unfairly harm “mom-and-pop landlords that are not getting the break” and “still have bills to pay.” A July 2022 study by the National Coalition for Civil Rights Counsel found that just 3% of tenants have legal representation during eviction hearings, compared to 82% of landlords.
Attorneys and administrators explained that funding would not pay past-due rent. It will help provide legal advice and negotiate voluntary payment schedules and relocation agreements.
The Community Law Program would also draft and file court documents, represent tenants through proceedings and help keep evictions off credit reports. Amy Foster, housing and neighborhood services administrator, said the initiative would benefit all stakeholders.
“The majority of these cases never go to court,” she said. “There’s a lot of other outcomes … and this was something that was actually supported by many of the landlords that we worked with as a way to help them have better outcomes in the end.”
Foster said the pro bono legal services would keep tenants from staying on the property and extending the eviction process. “And again, I’m going to remind you that this is something we funded during Covid,” she added.
“We have a track record of using the same agency in the past, and the Bay Area Apartment Association was a part of that project and was very thankful for the work …,” Foster said. “As well as the tenants – keeping them from becoming homeless.”
Councilmember Gina Driscoll offered support for the probate assistance. While she called that “a no-brainer,” she took issue with eviction prevention services not including an income limit.
In addition, Driscoll said she hoped to see a citywide program. Foster said there is a plan to extend the initiative throughout St. Pete following the pilot.
“But this is something you all approved and asked us to move forward almost a year ago,” she added.
Foster noted that the CRA is a small area with some of the highest eviction rates. City officials included program funding in the current budget last year.
“You will spend much more money rehousing people who are evicted through the homeless programs,” Foster said.
However, Driscoll believes the lack of an income limit could lead to misuse. She said a similar program in Tampa “ran out of money immediately.”
Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders noted that elected officials do not request income statements when they ask for votes. She said some city officials have more experience with homelessness, which affects perspectives.
“Either we keep them (residents) in their homes today, or we’re going to be complaining because they’re at our bus stops tomorrow,” Figgs-Sanders said. “I would prefer to have people in their own homes.”
The city council voted 6-2, with Montanari and Driscoll dissenting, to provide the Community Law Program with a $300,000 grant for the Eviction Prevention and Probate Assistance Program.