A flurry of new legislation percolating out of Tallahassee could undue months, if not years, of local work to increase support for St. Petersburg’s renters.
Council members heard Thursday how two proposed bills could impede local tenant protections. City Attorney Bradley Tennant noted both preempt regulations regarding landlord-renter relationships.
The discussion stemmed from a first reading of a city ordinance that would mitigate frequent sources of income discrimination. If passed, the changes would eliminate a time limit for government assistance payments, remove an insurance exemption and increase unit inspection periods.
“We have a number of tenant protections that have come through committee that are in process,” said Amy Foster, neighborhood affairs administrator. “And until something is passed that repeals our ability to do it, we are taking direction from you as a body to continue that work.”
City Hall was packed with residents Thursday waiting their turn to weigh in on an abortion services funding debate, voted down due to state preemptions and reprisal fears. The lone public speaker for the income discrimination ordinance was William Kilgore, representing the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.
He encouraged council members to approve the code changes and ignore the looming legislation. Kilgore called owners utilizing loopholes in the city’s Tenant’s Bill of Rights “back-door” class and racial discrimination.
He relayed that many rental listings on the Zillow platform still state “no section 8” in all caps.
“Right next to it will say something like, ‘fur babies welcome,'” Kilgore added. “So, animals are welcome but not … poor people.”
Councilmember John Muhammad said city renter protections cleared new paths now followed by other local governments. He said that is the case with Pinellas County officials, who have improved upon St. Petersburg initiatives.
However, the proposed legislation threatens to derail the city’s status as an affordable housing innovator.
SB 1586, filed by Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, allows state regulations to supersede local rules regarding the tenant screening process; security deposits; applications and related fees; terms and conditions; property disclosures; notice requirements and “the rights and responsibilities of the landlord and tenant.”
HB 1417, filed by Rep. Tiffany Esposito, R-Ft. Myers, consists of identical language. The companion bills are rapidly progressing through the legislative process.
“The primary thing they would do is eliminate specific local government legislation,” Tennant said. “Related to – anything related to landlords and tenants.”
Councilmember Ed Montanari asked Tennant if the legislation would preempt the income discrimination ordinance. Tennant noted multiple bills under consideration would impede local governance.
He said city attorneys would offer recommendations based on what the governor signs into law in its totality. The first would be for city officials to suspend enforcement of related local ordinances immediately.
“But this, as drafted, would be preempted,” added Tennant. “Yes.”
Montanari then questioned why the council was moving forward with the code amendment. Foster said administrators would pause a major mailing campaign regarding the changes and issue emails to stakeholders to save city funding.
“I’m always concerned about an ordinance like this that is extremely cumbersome for landlords,” Montanari said. That may increase the cost to landlords. And what are landlords going to do? They are going to pass off the cost to the customer at the end of the line.”
While she supports the ordinance, Councilmember Gina Driscoll bemoaned its timing. She noted the state legislation is “sailing through,” and the city code amendment would take effect July 1.
As it stands, HB 1417 would also take effect July 1.
Driscoll said the council should start thinking about other ways to assist the city’s renters and make landlord-tenant relationships “fairer for both sides.”
“Just like with so many other things, we look at what the laws are, and we find other ways to meet our goals,” Driscoll added.
The first reading passed 5-2, with Council Chair Brandi Gabbard and Montanari voting against the code amendment. Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz was absent, and a second reading takes place April 20.