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Should St. Pete fund renters’ legal, financial assistance?

Mark Parker

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The St. Petersburg City Council voted 7-1 to advance a citywide right to counsel program and explore a court registry fund to prevent evictions. Photo: mit.edu.

Low-income tenants facing eviction in St. Petersburg could soon receive pro-bono legal counsel after the city council formally approved exploring a long-discussed initiative.

The resolution, passed 7-1 at the May 18 meeting, also supports funding a court registry for delinquent rent payments – a primary source of contention. While Mayor Ken Welch and city administrators support the council’s decision, essentially all potential program details remain unclear.

Councilmember Richie Floyd first broached the subject over a year ago, and he and his colleagues have debated the merits and legality of increasing legal and monetary assistance for tenants in multiple committee meetings. City officials recently approved a similar “pilot” initiative in South St. Pete using $100,000 in Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) money.

“It’s a very convoluted and complicated process to go through eviction,” Floyd said. “Various studies say that 15 to 45 percent of people who are homeless cite eviction as the reason why. And so, anything we can do to lower that is going to be beneficial.”

Councilmember Richie Floyd began exploring the initiative in April 2022. Screengrab.

However, several council members expressed concern over funding, scope, potential state preemption and a myriad of unanswered questions. City administrator Rob Gerdes said he would ascertain those details and present a detailed plan in the coming months.

Chair Brandi Gabbard relayed that 81% of landlords have legal representation at eviction hearings, compared to just 3% of residents. She also noted that funding a tenant’s right to counsel is among her previously listed budget priorities and said the initiative is “worth moving forward today.”

“I’m not saying I’m going to agree with every step along the way or every outcome administration might bring,” Gabbard added. “But I believe that we could find something that we could craft that would balance, would end up having the desired outcome of helping people and closing that gap.”

Gerdes said he would come before the council with more answers before starting the procurement process for a third-party nonprofit vendor. Councilmembers Lissett Hanewicz and Copley Gerdes said that was enough to approve the resolution.

Councilmember Ed Montanari remained steadfast in his opposition to the measure. He asked if the city program would affect landlord-tenant relationships – broadly prohibited under new state legislation – pending the governor’s approval.

Said assistant City Attorney Bradley Tennant: “The short answer, from a legal perspective, is no. I do not believe that we are changing in a sense that we would be preempted from passing this.”

When asked why he seemed unsure of his answer, Tennant noted that judicial interpretation of the new bill remains unclear. The city’s legal department will “follow up” on that aspect once officials complete a funding agreement.

While St. Pete used federal money to implement similar programs during the pandemic, Tennant said, “Miami is likely the only municipality I have seen who has done something more broad like this.” Montanari noted the city has previously provided rental assistance, but questioned the legality of proactively contributing tax dollars to a registry.

“Because the registry is just for rent, that is kind of where we believe we can get there,” Tennant replied. “If this is passed, we would research and work with whoever is selected through the RFP (request for proposals) process … and see how they think it would operate under their legal and ethical obligations.”

He added that the city officials would do the same and plan to  ensure that everyone understands the registry funding is “the city paying rent, which we’re authorized to do.”

That aspect was a common source of concern. Multiple council members expressed reluctance to pay past-due bills for people living outside their means.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

However, Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders relayed that the program’s provider would conduct extensive assessments for each client. In addition, she noted that administrators would establish a finite funding level, like the pandemic-era initiatives.

“We’re not going to go into debt trying to help our residents maintain their homes,” Figgs-Sanders said. “All of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless. Everybody that is out there homeless – they didn’t come from the South Side.”

She elaborated that the housing crisis exists citywide, underscoring the need to enhance and expand the South St. Pete CRA program. She wants to alleviate the stigma that homelessness is more prevalent in specific demographics.

Figgs-Sanders also noted that landlords would ultimately receive the registry funding.

“At the end of the day, someone is going to get paid,” she said. “And it’s not going to be the renter.”

Administrators will now explore funding options and potential vendors and negotiate the service scope. The council approved an amended motion that allows them to hear those results before implementation.

 

 

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jack B

    May 22, 2023at10:38 pm

    Most eviction proceedings are initiated after numerous discussions, warnings and legal notices to tenants who are not paying the rent they agreed to pay in a rental agreement. Landlords seek eviction as a very last resort because “It’s a very convoluted and complicated process to go through eviction,” It is also very expensive. And during that lengthy process, the tenant is occupying the property and not paying rent.

    Many tenants have learned how to play the game, often stalling and promising and ignoring reasonable resolutions. Landlords have made an investment and they rightfully expect a reasonable return.
    One of the reasons for a lack of “affordable” housing is that the costs for acquiring or building rental properties is very high, due in large part to the bureaucracy, the permitting, and of course inflation and a shortage of skilled workers for construction.
    This environment produces high-cost rentals – single-family, multi-family. etc. – which generate tremendous property tax revenues for city, county and state governments. Evictions are very typically from low-cost housing which drives investors to the higher-end properties.
    The efforts to reduce evictions eventually result in less available rental units as the investors cannot survive non-payment of rents while property taxes, insurance, maintenance and building costs increase beyond their ability to stay solvent.
    Not so long ago, the solution of choice was govenment-funded housing. That didn’t work out so well so now the liberals in city hall are looking to the property owners to bear the expense burden while the tenants are not paying their rent.

  2. Avatar

    Steve D

    May 22, 2023at9:06 pm

    Ah yes, another socialist folly which will be quickly struck down by the Florida Supreme Court. FYI, landlords have rights too, especially since they own the properties and don’t work for free.

  3. Avatar

    Leslie Bouwman

    May 22, 2023at5:14 pm

    So glad to see that the majority of council members are in favor of this small step towards leveling the fid for renters.

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