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Low-income families could see rents go up during the crisis

Even as residents grapple with the coronavirus crisis and unemployment, those in government-assisted housing could see an increase
Urban Landings in downtown St. Petersburg is managed by Concord. Low-income tenants there were notified their rents would go up before Concord walked that back.
Urban Landings in downtown St. Petersburg is managed by Concord. Low-income tenants there were notified their rents would go up before Concord walked that back. [ JOSH SOLOMON | Times ]
Published Apr. 19, 2020|Updated Apr. 22, 2020

The letter came April 1, the very day Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was shutting down the state of Florida.

Rent was going up for Jason and Catherine Zoubek, the letter said. They are tenants of FairView Cove, an apartment complex in east Tampa managed by the affordable housing company Concord Management.

In fact, tenants all over Florida in income-restricted units controlled by Concord Management, which manages properties throughout the state, got a customized version of the same letter and faced the same fate. The new rent was to kick in April 15. The increases would be different for each resident based on the price of an individual unit and resident’s income. For the Zoubeks, that would mean nearly $50 a month more.

The letter pointed out that residents had been notified of the rent increase since last fall and reminded them they had federal stimulus money on the way. None of that lessened the blow for Jason Zoubek, who emailed Hillsborough County commissioners the next day.

“The reason I am contacting you all is why is this happening in the midst of a pandemic and millions of people unemployed that our rent will be raised,” Zoubek asked. The couple has a baby due next month and his wife would have to stop working soon, he wrote, and he doesn’t qualify for most government assistance.

A week later, on April 7, Concord walked back the rent increases in another letter to tenants. The second letter said Concord would “waive” the monthly rent increase “until further notice," so long as tenants paid rent on time.

Other residents in subsidized housing around Florida and the country may not be so lucky.

Families in more than 210,000 units of low-income housing around Florida could see their rent go up. Across the country, that number is in the millions.

Increasing rent on low-income tenants in subsidized units, sometimes in the middle of their leases, is legal in this state, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. The rents are derived from the area’s median income figures updated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development each spring. The latest numbers came out March 31, and they went up.

But those figures don’t factor in the hit the economy has taken since the pandemic struck, or the millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are now jobless.

Because of that, low-income renters around the country face the possibility of increased rent just as many find themselves out of work. The good will of landlords may be the best they can hope for.

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Winter Park-based Concord Management has five communities in Hillsborough County, two in Pinellas, one in Pasco and three in Hernando. It has 103 properties in the state, with the highest concentration in the Orlando area. Concord’s website also lists properties in Georgia and New York state.

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A company called CED, which became one of the nation’s largest builders of affordable rental apartments using federal tax credits, and its spinoff company, Atlantic Housing Partners, use Concord to manage their properties.

The tax credits CED and Atlantic Housing use are one of the government’s most powerful incentives to developers to build low-income housing. The government gives builders lucrative tax credits if they promise to include affordable housing in their developments.

Tax-credit housing is built to accommodate families who make up to a certain percentage of an area’s median income. One Concord building in St. Peteresburg, Urban Landings, reserves units for two different income levels: 28 units for families who make up to 60 percent of the area’s median income, and four units for those who make up to 50 percent.

More than 2.68 million low-income homes have been built across the country with those tax credits, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last month, the income figures provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development changed. According to the new figures, the median family of four in the metropolitan statistical area that includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties now earns $69,200 annually. That’s up from $66,900 in 2019.

The Florida Housing Finance Corp., which administers affordable housing in the state, crunched the new income numbers and arrived at higher rent ceilings. That meant landlords could charge more.

In the Tampa Bay area, rent for a three-bedroom home reserved for families who make up to 60 percent of the area’s median income could go up $53 per month to $1,097.

The increase in median income does have one benefit for families seeking relief: Families on the margin who last year may have been excluded from affordable housing because their income was too high may now qualify.

Concord’s leases are written so that rent can go up mid-term in response to the rent limits going up. That’s why tenants across the state were told rent would go up April 15, no matter their lease renewal date.

Housing and Urban Development officials said in a statement that the department is mandated to publish new income numbers this time each year, and that the department “has no control over how rents are set.”

The Florida Housing Finance Corp. said that when the rent limits go up, that doesn’t mean rents must go up, too.

“The rent limits are simply just that: limits — amounts above which an owner cannot go — rather than a required amount that must be charged,” wrote Florida Housing spokeswoman Taylore Maxey in an email. “It is solely a property owner/management decision to increase rents within allowable limits.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Florida Housing both said they discouraged rent increases during the crisis. Florida Housing officials said so far they have only heard of one case of a landlord raising rent in response to income figures going up.

On Monday, after this story ran, Florida Housing Executive Director Trey Price issued this statement, threatening consequences should landlords raise rent during the crisis:

“As Floridians grapple with the COVID-19 public health emergency, the last thing they need is for landlords to increase rental payments,” Price said. “Florida Housing stands with Florida families by urging no rent increases and ensuring Floridians have access to affordable and safe housing during these uncertain times together. Those who choose to implement rent increases that impact residents during this global pandemic could result in consequences for future funding opportunities with Florida Housing.”

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The letters from Concord had some tenants seeking help from local elected officials.

The Zoubeks’ notice from Concord reminded them they had $1,200 of federal stimulus money coming, plus $500 per child. In their letters, Concord also encouraged residents who lost their jobs to apply for unemployment benefits, which have been increased to $600 per week. The underfunded unemployment system in Florida has been so overwhelmed by applicants it has resorted to taking paper applications.

Jason Zoubek declined to comment to the Times.

Like the Zoubeks, Pearl Tyson reached out to the Hillsborough County Commission. Tyson, 65, lives in Williams Landing in Tampa. She told the Times the management company, Gatehouse Management, notified her that her rent will increase by $55 when she renews in August.

A woman who answered the phone at Williams Landing directed questions to the corporate office. Gatehouse Management, a Massachusetts-based company, did not return calls and an email for comment.

Following residents’ complaints, Hillsborough leaders on April 8 sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking him to issue an executive order “freezing rental rates as of a certain date until such time as the emergency passes and economic conditions improve.”

DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré did not respond to repeated requests for comment through email and text messages. Hillsborough leaders said they have not received a response from the governor.

“I wish they wouldn’t do it," Hillsborough Commissioner Les Miller said of landlords raising rent, “and I don’t have the authority to tell them not to do it.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she got complaints from Concord tenants in four counties near Orlando, all who got letters similar to Zoubek’s. One of those resident’s rent was going to spike $75, before Concord called off the rent increase.

“That’s a lot of money if you don’t have money," said Eskamani, who posted pictures of Concord’s April 1 letter to Twitter, calling out the company for announcing the impending rent increase.

She said to have benefited from a tax credit and then raise rents during a pandemic “does not feel right and it wasn’t right.”

Eskamani emailed Atlantic Housing Partners executives Scott Culp and Paul Missigman to urge them to "reconsider this decision and NOT increase rent right now.” The exchange, which stretched from April 5 to April 7, was obtained by the Times as part of a public records request.

Culp said the company would try to assist residents on a case-by-case basis and invoked the governor’s executive order suspending evictions during the crisis. He added that more than 4,000 residents had not paid their April rent. Eskamani asked why the company would increase the rent if 4,000 people already can’t pay. Ultimately, Culp sent Eskamani a statement on April 7, the same statement Concord sent to the Times in response to a request for comment

It said no rent increases had been collected, and they would be “waived for those households that pay their rent timely.” The statement went on to say that Concord is “developing individualized assistance programs tailored to the needs of the specific household,” and that “those assistance programs may consist of waived late fees, deferral of rents, waiver or discount of rents, gift cards for basic household necessities and other resources that we may be able to provide.”

The statement echoed a letter sent to tenants on April 7 saying the increase in rent was being deferred “until further notice” for tenants that pay rent on time. The letter said it was “as a sign of our appreciation.”

Concord did not answer specific questions about why the April 1 letters were sent out and what caused the company to pivot.

• • •

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