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More Tampa Bay renters, fewer places they can afford

Rents are sky-high in new apartment complexes but also rising in older ones.
Anna Bryson unpacks in her new apartment in Harlow at Gateway in St. Petersburg.
Anna Bryson unpacks in her new apartment in Harlow at Gateway in St. Petersburg. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]
Published Oct. 7, 2019|Updated Oct. 8, 2019

CLEARWATER - Mark Robinson lives in the Standard, an aging apartment complex on Drew Street near U.S. 19. He likes his neighbors and the management, but don’t get him started on the maintenance problems he’s had with the three-bedroom apartment he and a friend rent for $1,400 a month.

"It’s too expensive for what it is,'' the 33-year-old kennel manager said, ticking off issues with the sink, air conditioning, dishwasher, dryer and so on.

Why not buy?

"I’ll always rent unless I hit the lottery,'' he said. "I’m a paycheck to paycheck kind of guy.''

That description fits millions of Americans, and it’s especially true in Florida where soaring home prices leave a substantial share of the population with no choice but to rent. But the number of affordable rental units is shrinking while developers are building thousands of "luxury'' apartments with prices that would bust the budgets of many renters.

Mark Robinson at his Clearwater apartment complex.
Mark Robinson at his Clearwater apartment complex. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

Those are among the findings of the "2019 Rental Market Study,'' done by the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies. Commissioned by the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which helps fund affordable and low-income rental projects, the study found that:

  • Between 2000 and 2017, Florida gained nearly 800,000 renter households, many in the wake of the Great Recession.
  • In that same period, the state added nearly 720,000 new rental units that lease for $1,000 or more. The number of units renting for less than that amount fell. (“Rental units” include houses, condos and mobile homes, as well as apartments.)
  • Nearly 800,000 Florida renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 40 percent of their income for rent. In the Tampa Bay area, cost-burdened renters make up nearly a third of all renters.

"This is the seventh one we’ve done,'' said Anne Ray, an author of the study, "and each time the housing needs go up. That’s because more people are renting and also the affordability gap grows because rents are rising faster than incomes.''

As of last year, the most recent for which figures are available, the median household income in the Tampa Bay region was nearly $55,000. To avoid being "cost-burdened,'' renters could pay no more than $1,750 a month at a time when many new apartments have prices starting at that amount.

In ICON Central, a St. Petersburg tower that opened this year, that amount would cover the annual rent for only a one-room studio. To rent a three-bedroom apartment you would need an annual income of at least $174,000 to keep from being cost-burdened.

The stratospheric prices of new apartments in downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa have driven thousands of renters into older complexes outside of those areas.

In January, Kristin Scott and her boyfriend moved into Woodland Key, built in 1975 on E Bay Drive in Largo. For a one-bedroom apartment, they pay almost $1,000 a month.

"I feel apartments in Florida are overpriced, and I feel like this is too small for the price,'' said Scott, 22, a customer service rep for a health care company. With a baby who’s about to start walking, the couple hope they can move to a two-bedroom place when their lease expires but aren’t sure they can afford to.

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The University of Florida study found that the higher a renter’s income, the more places he or she can choose from that are "affordable and available.'' That might sound obvious, but it translates to thousands of rental units that are vacant but priced too high for many people.

Example: Two years ago, someone making $62,400 or more had a choice of 15,000 rental units in the Tampa Bay area that were vacant and affordable. Affordable is defined as costing no more than 30 percent of annual income.

By contrast, someone earning $31,200 or less couldn’t find any rental units that were available and affordable. .

As the demand for rental housing grows, many older apartment complexes are changing hands and undergoing major renovations that enable the new owners to jack up rents. That puts even more units beyond an affordable range.

RELATED STORY: Tampa Bay apartment rents keep rising. Here are some of the reasons why

Four years ago, a north Florida company bought Palmway Village, an apartment complex built in the early 1970s off Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. The company painted parts of the dingy exterior walls lime green and light blue, began renovating units and renamed it “The Vibe.” The rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose from $780 to $820.

Last year, a New York company bought the complex. The lime green was painted over, more renovations began and the complex was rechristened "Harlow at Gateway.'' On a recent sweaty afternoon, Anna Bryson was moving into a one-bedroom apartment that now rents for $1,000.

"Rents have been going up incredibly since 2015 when I came back from New York,” she said. Divorced, she had been living in a garage apartment but had to leave when the owners decided to redo it.

Her new apartment on the third floor of a four-story building appears freshly painted and has nice wood-look laminate floors. But the screen on the porch is torn, and there’s no disguising that the corridors are dark and narrow with low ceilings. The elevator has what appears to be a bullet hole in the door. Last year, the complex was the scene of two murder-suicides and an incident in which a tenant stabbed an intruder to death.

A torn screen in Harlow at Gateway, an aging St. Petersburg complex that has undergone many name changes.
A torn screen in Harlow at Gateway, an aging St. Petersburg complex that has undergone many name changes. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

"A thousand for this is way too high,'' said Bryson, who works in sales. "I’m already looking for another place.''

Renting has become the default option for Tampa Bay residents like Robert Garrett who want to buy and can afford to buy but can’t close a deal on the houses they want.

Robert Garrett outside his apartment in Clearwater
Robert Garrett outside his apartment in Clearwater [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

Garrett, who works in traffic engineering for the city of Clearwater, said he and his fiance pre-qualified for a $200,000 mortgage and put in offers on more than a dozen houses. After losing out so many times because of quicker offers or other factors, they finally gave up. They left the "horrible'' villa they had been renting and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Columns at Allens Creek, an older complex in Clearwater.

"These new places, the rents are ridiculous,'' he said. "We ended up here because my fiance rented here five or six years ago and knew it was nice.''

They initially paid $1,080 a month for their two-bedroom apartment overlooking a courtyard but the rent rose to $1,145 in July. Do they still hope to buy a house?

"Not in Florida,'' Garrett said. After they marry in January, they plan to move to North Carolina.

• • •

Top 10 occupations of Renters in Florida and their median hourly wages

  • Maids and housekeeping cleaners - $10.33
  • Cashiers - $9.36
  • Waiters and waitresses - $10.15
  • Janitors and building cleaners - $10.69
  • Cooks - $9.81-$12.53
  • Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides - $10.97-$12.07
  • Retail salespersons - $10.53
  • Customer service representatives - $14.34
  • Construction laborers - $13.79
  • Driver/sales workers and truck drivers - $10.07-$18.39
  • Supervisors of retail sales workers - $19.21
  • Managers - $45.18

Source: Shimberg Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity data.


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