St. Petersburg City Council members are discussing an initiative to create a rental properties database that includes owner and site information, and also promotes transparency.
The goal of a rental registry is to facilitate community outreach, inform policymaking and gather pertinent information during a housing crisis – such as the number of available units and pricing. Amy Foster, community and neighborhood affairs administrator, led a presentation on a potential program at Thursday morning’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting.
While Councilmember Deborah-Figgs Sanders said she researched the initiative for over a year, many questions – particularly surrounding legal issues – remain. She explained the meeting was to gather the committee’s thoughts and hear from the city attorneys before further discussions with administrators and the full council.
“Landlords are able to screen tenants,” said Councilmember John Muhammad. “But tenants aren’t able to screen landlords.”
Through the discussion, the committee seemingly agreed that a “mandatory registry” presented too many challenges due to state preemption, prior case law and several other potential issues. Most preferred to include some of that information in St. Petersburg’s online rental dashboard, currently under construction.
Foster explained that landlord registries gained popularity during the pandemic as many local governments realized they lacked to date to adequately disburse emergency rental assistance for millions of tenants facing eviction.
She noted that Syracuse, New York established a narrowly scoped registry in 2007. It only applies to one and two-family non-owner-occupied units, and Foster said city officials could implement something similar in St. Petersburg.
Due to a lack of voluntary participation, Syracuse’s leadership passed additional legislation in 2020 that prevents landlords from initiating eviction proceedings if the property is unregistered. She said that is “something I can’t imagine we would ever be able to do in Florida.”
She added that the state’s landlord-tenant laws are “unique.” As such, the Bay Area Apartment Association mailed St. Petersburg officials a letter before the meeting highlighting how the City of Tampa paused its recently enacted registry.
Foster relayed that the hold is for “an exploration process” to ascertain program outcomes and “what they were able to accomplish and whether it should continue or not.”
Joe Waugh, director of codes compliance, said there are about 24,000 homesteaded rental properties in St. Petersburg, and 67% of those owners live in Hillsborough, Pinellas or Manatee Counties. That allows them to act as the legal premise agent.
The remaining 33% must hire a local agent to represent the property. Waugh said the city cited over 270 owners over the last two years for not meeting the legal premise agent requirement.
That data, an updated tenants bill of rights and a feature that allows residents to search code violations are part of a new city website. Councilmember Brandi Gabbard suggested combining the two initiatives.
However, City Attorney Bradley Tennant noted challenges with any form of city-run mandatory landlord registry. City officials would also have to charge a fee to cover the program’s cost, which landlords could then pass on to renters.
Muhammad suggested a mechanism for renters to comment and rate owners and properties, similar to the Uber platform. Tennant explained that listing objective information – like the number and size of available units and contact information – is allowable.
He said public comments would encounter “serious” first amendment concerns, which City Administrator Rob Gerdes said he witnessed with St. Petersburg’s See, Click, Fix program. Gerdes also suggested including the information on the city’s website and making access easier for residents without charging a fee for a formal registry.
In addition, Councilmember Gina Driscoll noted that if the registry was voluntary, she is unsure of the likelihood that “some of the bad actors are going to raise their hand and offer all this information.” Figgs-Sanders said residents could see who declined to register and make their own inferences.
Waugh showed how researching code violations could help potential renters make informed decisions and used the Madeira Apartments as an example. The city’s website listed dozens of citations for that complex.
“That’s the goal of the new renter’s site,” Waugh said. “Not only to address the tenants bill of rights issues but also to make sure this is available.”
Foster will assist with that platform’s marketing efforts. Students participating in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative are completing the project.
However, Councilmember Richie Floyd relayed that the city’s dashboard description states it would detail “our affordable housing status and goals.”
“I think it’s a different conversation,” he added. “The registry, in my mind, was that you register your apartments; you register the units you rent. The biggest thing is that the city can then make sure they are fit for habitation.
“I think we need to decide what’s possible, first and foremost, and then come to some terms about what kind of data we want to keep on units and how difficult that might be.”
Foster pledged to make the rental dashboard easy for residents to explore and will preview the platform for council members next month. She believes that will help city officials refine a potential registry’s parameters.
Floyd said he would put the discussion item back on a Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee agenda as soon as possible for further discussion.