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City considers tenant protections for subsidized housing

Mark Parker

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The City of St. Petersburg dedicated $2.74 million to the Bayou Court Apartments project in November 2023. A proposed policy would increase tenant protections at all subsidized developments. Rendering provided.

St. Petersburg abruptly scrapped its Tenant Bill of Rights in July 2023 due to state preemptions; an initiative to implement similar protections in some form is now moving forward.

City Councilmember Richie Floyd has sought to mitigate the effects of House Bill 1417 since the governor signed it into law. The legislation disallowed any local “interference” in landlord-tenant relationships.

However, as discussed during a committee meeting Thursday, local leaders are free to shape contractual language when providing city-owned land or subsidizing affordable housing developments. A proposed policy draft includes safeguards against income discrimination, late fee notification requirements and rent increase stipulations.

“Steering more towards policy versus an ordinance is probably our best bet,” said City Attorney Michael Dema. “From a regulatory standpoint, we don’t have really anything anymore. But from a contractual standpoint, I think this is in our wheelhouse.”

City officials increasingly subsidize affordable and workforce housing developments. The Bayou Court Apartments in South St. Petersburg is a recent example.

The $17 million project will feature 60 units, and the developer, Gravel Road Partners, will prioritize applications from school district and municipal employees. The city contributed $2.74 million, and Pinellas County Commissioners approved a $2.8 million subsidy.

St. Petersburg administrators also offer city-owned land at a steep discount to builders who create affordable housing or provide a community benefit. The Historic Gas Plant District’s $6.5 billion redevelopment is a prominent example.

If approved by the full city council, the new policy would offer many of the same protections found in the Tenant’s Bill of Rights. Administrators and council members must still establish most details.

The Tenants Bill of Rights took effect in February 2020 and underwent several amendments as rents skyrocketed. It prohibited discriminatory practices not typically found in state and federal statutes, including familial status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Local ordinances also closed a loophole allowing landlords to deny prospective tenants receiving housing vouchers. HB1417 eliminated those codified safeguards.

“We know these (development) agreements aren’t all one-size-fits-all,” Dema said. “But having some idea of what can work and getting some feedback to administration today is super valuable.”

While the proposed policy excludes month-to-month leases, Floyd hopes the language would provide some flexibility. City officials must also establish penalties for noncompliance.

Floyd suggested using the previous ordinances as a model. Landlords who violated the Tenants Bill of Rights were subject to $500 fines.

“In a contract, I would characterize those (penalties) as ‘liquidated damages,’” Dema said.

Floyd noted a community support specialist successfully helped hundreds of residents avoid evictions by negotiating with landlords. “I don’t think we’re going to get in that situation as much when we’re doing it with our affordable housing teams in the city – because they generally follow all of these things and more without even being prompted,” he added.

Council members must approve city-owned land sales and housing subsidies. Dema said they could implement varying liquidated damages on a case-by-case basis.

The ultimate goal is to provide tenant protections while allowing administrators the freedom to negotiate. Amy Foster, neighborhood affairs administrator, explained that increased stipulations could stall a potential deal.

However, she added that officials from Blue Sky Communities, a local affordable housing developer, did not share any concerns in a recent discussion with Floyd. Councilmember Brandi Gabbard said she would like to seek additional industry feedback.

She also offered her support. “When we are giving our land or our money to developers, I have no problem with us putting additional strings on that,” Gabbard said. “It’s really the controls that we do have.”

The committee agreed to let the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, comprised of local stakeholders, review the policy. City Administrator Rob Gerdes said the mayoral administration would consult local development partners.

City council members, acting as the Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee, will discuss and incorporate feedback at their March 7 meeting. The full council would then vote on the new policy.

“This language was applicable to every piece of housing in the city until recently,” Floyd said. “I think a resolution and voting on it shows the community that we’re still poking around on this.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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