With the soaring cost of rents continuing to burden and displace residents, and following Pinellas County exhausting its emergency rental assistance funding, commissioners are considering a code amendment to institute a Tenants Bill of Rights.
Following a lengthy and extensive information gathering session, public forum and debate, during Tuesday’s meeting county commissioners rescinded a motion to approve the ordinance to allow county officials time to address several issues with the language and application of the bill. Among the concerns are rental insurance increases for owners, applying the measure uniformly throughout the county and ensuring it offers enough protection for tenants.
Commissioner Karen Seel said she appreciated the work that went into drafting the ordinance, and believes it contains beneficial aspects but said it does not encompass everything officials would like to see covered.
“I also am a little concerned – well, quite a bit concerned – why we didn’t just look at adopting the St. Petersburg ordinance as it kind of encompasses any of the concerns that have been raised tonight,” said Seel. “Then we wouldn’t already be having a difference between our biggest city and the rest of the county.
“We’ve had this issue before with different cities where we were trying to truly be conducive to working together so that we didn’t have them opting out of ordinances.”
Commissioner Renee Flowers noted that although she would like to see officials move forward with the ordinance, it would not take effect until Oct. 3. She said commissioners could wait 30-45 days to approve the measure, allowing the administration to complete additional research, and the amendment would still take effect on the target date.
Flowers then motioned for the item to return to county staff for “further tightening” and for the administration to review the insurance component with the Office of Financial Services and conduct further conversations with area municipalities to create “a succinct ordinance agreement to eliminate the opt-out provision.
“I just want to make sure that whatever we do, it has some substance,” said Flowers. “I don’t want to vote on something, and it has no teeth – it has no bite, and they’re stuck.”
Carol Stricklin, director of housing and community development, led a presentation on the proposed ordinance at Tuesday’s county commission meeting. Commissioners could apply the measure to unincorporated areas or countywide, although a city’s ordinance would supersede Pinellas. Stricklin said municipalities and the administration would like to see uniform protections across the county.
The proposed ordinance amends the county code to include a proposed Tenants Bill of Rights that would prohibit discrimination based on the source of income – specifically, public assistance and housing vouchers – and require written notice of late fees. The proposal would also require landlords to provide tenants with a list of their entitlements upon entering a new rental term.
Stricklin told commissioners the administration modeled the proposal on a similar initiative adopted by Hillsborough County. Tampa and St. Petersburg have also instituted a Tenants Bill of Rights.
Stricklin explained how the county’s Bill of Rights would differ from St. Petersburg’s, beginning with a provision related to insurance requirements.
“Essentially, what that says, is if accepting (housing) vouchers would increase the cost of insurance for a policy that’s been in place for a year, that there would not be an obligation to accept those vouchers,” said Stricklin. “This is a practice that we don’t have a lot of information about.”
Stricklin relayed that a landlord shared their insurance policy with her stipulating that if they accepted vouchers for over 20% of their units, the insurer would amend or cancel the policy. Both Stricklin and Flowers called that concerning.
“They’re all paying the same rent – it’s just the money is coming from different places,” said Flowers.
Commissioner Janet Long and Flowers called that a form of discrimination, and Stricklin said that is one concern from stakeholders, such as the Pinellas Housing Authority.
“We really needed to have a bigger discussion about what the impact of that provision is,” added Stricklin.
Another difference between St. Petersburg and the county proposal regards how landlords calculate income. She explained that landlords apply income standards to ensure a potential tenant can afford occupancy.
She said the St. Pete provision looks at the total amount of rent and allows landlords to deny rentals based on what they believe someone can pay, although she called the language “a little difficult to understand.”
Stricklin said the county did not include that provision because the purpose of a housing voucher program is to provide subsidies so that residents can afford rent.
“So, the cash amount that they pay, plus the subsidy, is available to that landlord and should be treated and considered as making them eligible to occupy that unit,” said Stricklin.
County Administrator Barry Burton clarified that under the county’s proposal, a landlord could look at a person’s total income but must include the housing assistance as part of the calculation.
“You still have to show sufficient income to be able to afford the unit,” said Burton.
During an extensive public forum, people representing both landlords and tenants expressed their concerns with the proposal, which the county’s code enforcement and consumer protection departments are authorized to enforce. Violations are punishable by a fine of $500.
Former St. Petersburg City Council member and current Homeless Leadership Alliance CEO Amy Foster participated in the public forum via Zoom. She urged the commissioners to pass the proposed ordinance and said it was stronger than the city’s measure.
She told commissioners that the department of Housing and Urban Development is moving away from building affordable housing. Instead, the federal organization is increasing its offering of housing vouchers.
“While they’ve been distributed to tenants, few have been able to be utilized because of the need for more landlords to accept that kind of assistance,” said Foster. “Because of the need for more landlords to accept that kind of assistance.”
Pinellas commissioners unanimously voted to pause a vote on the proposed ordinance amending county code to include a Tenants Bill of Rights. Chair Charlie Justice also asked for a side-by-side comparison with St. Petersburg’s initiative. Burton said he would try to complete the further research, issue new public notices and bring the item back before the commission next month.