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Pinellas County prepares to pass Tenants Bill of Rights as rental costs soar

A vote is set for Aug. 2 on a measure that, as currently written, would require landlords to accept housing vouchers.
A sign advertises a rental in the 1100 block of 8th Street N on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg. A proposed Pinellas County ordinance would provider greater protections for renters.
A sign advertises a rental in the 1100 block of 8th Street N on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg. A proposed Pinellas County ordinance would provider greater protections for renters. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 22|Updated Jun. 22

A single mother raising three children and working as a paralegal recently qualified for a $2,800 housing voucher through the Pinellas County Housing Authority, which should have been enough to secure a three-bedroom apartment.

But landlord after landlord turned the woman away solely because most of her rent would come from government assistance, according to Elisa Galvan, director of the county’s housing choice voucher program.

“Those are the things we see every day at the housing authority,” Galvan told the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday.

Amid soaring housing insecurity, Pinellas County is developing a Tenants Bill of Rights that, in its current draft, would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to people with housing vouchers, matching the ordinance in Hillsborough County. It would also require landlords to provide tenants written notice of late fees and notice of their rights under federal and state law.

The Board of County Commissioners discussed the ordinance on Tuesday but tabled it so staff could research implications on landlords’ insurance premiums and income protections following concerns raised by housing providers.

In the updated ordinance expected to go before the commission on Aug. 2, Carol Stricklin, Pinellas County housing and community development director, said staff will also add language requiring advanced notice for certain levels of rent increases.

“I just want to make sure that whatever we do, it has some substance,” Commissioner René Flowers said. “I don’t want to vote on something and it has no teeth, it has no bite, and (renters) are stuck.”

Eric Garduño, government affairs director for the Bay Area Apartment Association, warned the commission on Tuesday that some insurance carriers will increase premiums or cancel policies if housing providers accept vouchers.

Stricklin said staff based Pinellas’ proposed ordinance on Hillsborough County’s tenants bill of rights. But Garduño urged the commission to adopt a provision St. Petersburg has, which requires landlords to accept vouchers except in cases where their insurance policies would be impacted.

County Administrator Barry Burton said it would be difficult to verify landlords’ insurance plans to enforce such a rule. The practice of insurance companies raising premiums based on vouchers appeared discriminatory but would be an issue for the Florida Legislature to resolve, commissioners said.

The proposed ordinance also prohibits landlords from determining income eligibility without considering the portion of the rent being paid by the tenant in cases of government subsidy. But Garduño said that wording is convoluted and could require landlords to rent to tenants with zero income beyond the voucher.

“Our concern is you’ll have folks in those situations that are not going to be able to pay the utilities or any other living costs associated to living at the apartment, and that puts everybody in a bad spot,” Garduño said in an interview Wednesday.

Commissioners urged staff to clarify the language on the income standards and further research insurance impacts. Burton will also meet again with city managers in Pinellas to gauge consensus on the provisions.

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As written, the ordinance would apply countywide but allow cities to opt out if they act before the projected effective date of Oct. 3. St. Petersburg would be permitted to retain its ordinance.

But housing advocates pressed the commission to act swiftly. They shared anecdotes of $1,000 rent increases resulting in evictions and homelessness.

“They are gouging us and they are making people homeless and we’re sick of it and we’re asking for the most basic protection here with rental vouchers,” said William Kilgore of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union. “Just not to discriminate against some of the most vulnerable members of our population.”

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