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Community Voices: Compromise gives us watered-down tenant protections

William Kilgore

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Dec. 9: A group of St. Petersburg Tenants Union supporters waiting to speak on proposed tenants' rights ordinances at City Hall. Photo: SPTU.

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It was around this time last year when I began setting up meetings with members of St. Pete city council to push a number of proposals to bolster tenants rights, based on my own personal experience and concerns shared with my organization by tenants across the city. With no lobbying experience, my strategy was to throw as much against the wall and see what stuck during these 30 minute meetings with council members.

One proposal which caught the attention of Councilmember Amy Foster was an ordinance to extend the required notice to terminate a month-to-month lease from 15 to 30 days. As a month-to-month lessee at the time, this was something that affected me firsthand. Contrary to popular belief, month-to-month lessees don’t see such agreements as temporary and certainly desire a higher level of stability in these arrangements. I was on one for nearly seven years until my landlord chose to terminate our agreement in retaliation for my activities with the tenants union. Fifteen days to move just isn’t enough notice.

In addition to the month-to-month extension, Foster also decided to rehash a vital facet of the city’s tenant bill of rights, a prohibition on source of income discrimination, which had been removed from that proposal due to pressure from the landlord lobby back in 2019.

The night before both measures were scheduled for a hearing in the Housing, Land Use and Transit (HLUT) Committee back in September, the Bay Area Apartment Association (BAAA), a landlord trade group, sent out a series of “compromises” they insisted be included in both ordinances, which were quickly rubber-stamped and approved in full by the HLUT.

Watching our ordinances being stripped down and meddled with was frustrating, but came as no surprise considering the makeup of the HLUT, and the huge amount of money which is poured into council elections every cycle by radical pro-business special interests. During the 2021 municipal election the two incumbent council members up for reelection, Brandi Gabbard and Gina Driscoll, received a total of at least $85,169.81 in donations associated with real estate, including landlords and development, making up 34% of their collective donation totals. Both of these council members currently sit on the 4-person HLUT, along with their colleagues, landlords Darden Rice and Robert Blackmon.

Naively, I believed that despite my organization lacking campaign cash to spare and facing the deep-rooted advantage held by trade groups, we could turn the dial at city hall through pure people power. We mobilized over two dozen of our supporters to the council chamber this month to resist the “compromise” ordinances proposed by the BAAA. By comparison, landlords and their cohorts only managed to mobilize a small group of about half a dozen.

The class distinction in the chamber was clear. The outnumbered lobbyists in suits and polos stood out in stark contrast with working folks in jeans, shorts and T-Shirts. Tenants whooped and heckled as the outnumbered landlords spoke, to the shock of council members, who were forced to go on recess at one point as a result. Several attendees were ejected. An elderly woman who showed up to support the tenants union later told me that she is homeless and living in her car. She heard about the call to action on a local radio show.

Despite the lopsided turnout and deafening concern by their working class constituents, council ultimately voted to approve both “compromise” ordinances.

As for the ordinance to extend the month-to-month notice of termination, there was zero discussion by council (following public comments), who approved reducing the original time from 30 to 21 days and the addition of an unnecessary fine structure which allows tenants to be penalized up to $500 for failing to give proper notice themselves.

The source of income discrimination ordinance, also approved by council, will allow landlords to continue to reject HUD Housing Choice Voucher Recipients in many cases. These were the primary tenants the ordinance was intended to protect. There are around 3,300 voucher recipients here in St. Pete, some of the poorest members of our community’s working class. To qualify, families of four must make under 50% AMI ($36k/yr). The majority are reserved for families making under 30% AMI ($22k/yr).

In addition, 83% of St. Pete voucher holders are Black women, 48% of whom have children in the home. Class and racial prejudice is generally the true motivation for rejecting voucher holders, locking them out of certain neighborhoods and multifamily complexes where uptight landlords and property owners fear an uptick in crime and drug use.

The ordinance, which takes effect this Spring, will allow landlords to reject voucher recipients if a required HUD inspection takes more than five days. The St. Pete Housing Authority takes seven days to complete these inspections, on average. Another loophole allows landlords to reject voucher recipients due to increase in insurance rates, or if their property fails a HUD inspection.

Though the result of my first experience as an activist launching a campaign to enact legislation resulted in disappointment, and despite seeing firsthand just how rigged our system is against the interests of working people, I am as optimistic about the future as ever. The movement we’re building to empower tenants will yield results far more impactful than any reform can ever offer.

Every time our elected officials let us down, the solution becomes increasingly clear for many: We work the jobs. We pay the rent. We keep everything running, and together we can shut it down at any time. The power is in our hands. All we’ve got to do is seize it.

William Kilgore is a representative of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.

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