Thursday’s city council meeting was a mixed bag for St. Petersburg tenants and their advocates.
Council members unanimously approved codifying the city’s withdrawal from Pinellas County’s tenant bill of rights – which offers some stronger protections than its municipal counterpart. However, the first reading of an ordinance amendment that prohibits certain income restrictions and mandates landlords accept government assistance payments for move-in costs received nearly the same support.
When Pinellas County Commissioners passed a tenants bill of rights along a 5-2 vote in August, it included a provision for municipalities to opt out of the ordinance. At the time, William Kilgore, speaking on behalf of the St. Pete Tenants Union, asked the board to pass the measure in the hopes that the city would address some of the loopholes in its legislation.
St. Petersburg’s ordinance allows landlords to deny prospective tenants receiving federal housing vouchers if the assistance impacts their insurance rates. The county does not offer that exception, and Amy Foster, community and neighborhood affairs administrator, said the issue does arise.
She relayed that during previous discussions, the Bay Area Apartment Association requested the differences in the two ordinances, including a 10-day inspection window instead of the city’s five. While she noted that some changes were unlikely to gain council and stakeholder approval, Foster said she would “have no heartburn” if the city bill further aligned with the county.
“I think what administration is burdened with is this balancing act,” she added. “We want to ensure that we are protecting our tenants, and we also have to ensure that we are not so onerous that we are driving landlords out of our city.”
Councilmember John Muhammad sparked further debate in his first motion since taking the dais Oct. 20. He asked that the amendment include insurance protections, a longer inspection window and the elimination of the 12-month requirement to establish qualified income, which would align with the county.
“If the county’s is stronger and it provides more protections to tenants, then that’s what I would like to have happen,” said Muhammad. “I don’t think we’re going to drive landlords out of the city, but I do understand the compromise.”
Brad Tennant, assistant city attorney, said consistency between the county and municipal ordinance would be helpful. However, he and Foster expressed that opting out would allow St. Petersburg officials to enforce any violations, which benefits city renters.
While he doesn’t believe the proposed changes would necessarily force landlords out of the city, Councilmember Ed Montanari noted, some have options.
“They could turn an apartment into a condo unit, and it could make the affordable housing problem that we have even worse,” he said. “So, I won’t be supporting this ordinance or motion.”
In addition, the city’s legal team told council members that changing the original ordinance amendment would cause delays further impacted by the holidays. Chair Gina Driscoll relayed her concerns over how much time the process could take and that it could result in no added protections passing.
Stating that he didn’t want the council to “split the baby,” Muhammad withdrew his motion. Council members agreed to send his proposals to a committee following the holiday break.
St. Petersburg first passed an ordinance protecting tenants’ rights in Nov. 2019. It prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, marital status, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or veteran or servicemember status.”
It also required landlords to provide written notice before issuing late fees. However, since the original ordinance took effect in Feb. 2020, an affordable housing crisis began sweeping the region and state.
The Washington Post reported that rents in the Tampa Bay metro area increased by 29% in the first two years of the pandemic. City officials have since taken a measured approach to additional tenant protections while increasing the affordable housing stock.
As he is still new to the job, Muhammad expressed his openness to following the typical process. However, he relayed his concern that the proposal would mirror the ongoing tenant’s right to legal counsel initiative, which Councilmember Richie Floyd first broached in April.
“The clock is ticking for residents,” said Muhamad. “It’s not just us up here saying, ‘okay, we got two weeks, and then we’re going to take time off.’ That time that we’re off, residents are still trying to figure things out.”
The city council approved the original ordinance amendment prohibiting certain income restrictions and mandating landlords to accept government assistance payments for move-in costs by a 7-1 vote, with Montanari dissenting.