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St. Pete explores providing attorneys for tenants

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg City Councilmember Richie Floyd requested “a thoughtful conversation surrounding the potential implementation of a right to counsel” during Thursday’s Youth and Family Services Committee meeting. Photo by Mark Parker.

A week after deciding to keep rent control off municipal ballots, St. Petersburg city leaders are now moving forward with a program to provide legal counsel for those facing eviction.

According to a July study by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, just 3% of U.S. tenants have legal representation when undergoing eviction proceedings – compared to 82% of landlords.

Councilmember Richie Floyd requested “a thoughtful conversation surrounding the potential implementation of a right to counsel (RTC)” during Thursday’s Youth and Family Services (YFS) Committee meeting. Floyd first broached the subject during an April YFS meeting, and the latest discussion follows his consultation with several community legal organizations regarding program details.

“This is definitely something the city can do,” said Brad Tennant, assistant city attorney. “Really, the only question is, how do we go about doing it.”

The discourse focused on draft resolution language – including any income limits, how the city would fund the program and ensuring the most benefit to residents with days to find a new home. Floyd opened the meeting by relaying that forecast models show St. Petersburg could receive anywhere from 382 to 954 annual RTC cases.

Per Florida statute, the city cannot use its attorneys for the program. However, if a community organization helps administer RTC, it could utilize its lawyers. City administration could also hire a recent law school graduate for around $80,000 annually, noted Floyd.

He explained that the potential number of cases would occur over a five-day period throughout the course of a year, reducing the city’s financial burden.

“And like we talked about last time, there are payoffs to this later on down the line in cost of services saved,” added Floyd.

Former Councilmember Amy Foster, acting in her new role as neighborhood affairs administrator, relayed that the administration believes reducing the number of evictions that can cause homelessness is an important strategy for the council to consider.

However, she said potential funding sources would require further administrative review and noted the city is “very late in the budget season.” Foster also explained that with the amount of paperwork required by federal programs, the council would need to look at more flexible options to aid those with just days until eviction.

Former Councilmember Amy Foster addressed the committee in her new role as neighborhood affairs administrator. Screengrab.

Area media income (AMI) levels that would qualify someone to participate in the program were another point of concern. She said the city’s eviction diversion program, which utilizes Covid funding, goes up to 80% of the AMI, while other sources cap income at 200%.

“I do know the administration does not support something that is assisting high-income individuals,” said Foster. “So, we need some answers around that.”

While Committee Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders emphasized she would like those with the greatest need to receive help first, Councilmember Copley Gerdes explained that there was no risk to lower earners as the city is funding the position rather than each instance.

Floyd said the percentage of residents making over 120% of the AMI – $69,000 for a one-person household – and facing eviction “is basically non-existent.” He added that the goal is procuring enough funding for everyone that may need RTC.

“You’re better off letting one person sneak in than keeping one person out,” said Gerdes.

The committee, comprised of Figgs-Sanders, Floyd, Gerdes and Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, ultimately decided against income limitations, although specific funding sources may have those stipulations.

Figgs-Sanders stressed that she would also like to acquire more than one source for the program and for it to provide in-person, courtroom legal representation rather than something more akin to a referral service.

She noted that the next YFS meeting is in October, the city exhausted its rental assistance funding months ago and the committee still does not have answers to questions posed in the April meeting.

Floyd will research agencies that provide similar services and identify a model the city could follow, which the committee will discuss at the Oct. 13 meeting. The council members also instructed the administration to work on potential grants and funding sources. Foster said she is happy to work on those arrangements but would not have all the answers in a month.

After working with city staff to identify funding sources, Floyd will then collaborate with the legal team to draft resolution language that includes communication of the RTC in the updated tenants bill of rights. They will also create a template for informational posters, similar to the workman’s compensation illustrations that businesses must display.

“I just want to make sure somebody is working on that in between (meetings),” said Figgs-Sanders.

 

 

 

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