Responding to rising housing costs and reports of discrimination, the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday passed a tenants bill of rights that will require landlords to provide notice of rent increases and late fees and prohibit them from discriminating against renters with housing vouchers.
The ordinance applies countywide unless cities opt out before it takes effect Oct. 3. It contains stronger protections for renters than the tenants bill of rights on the books in St. Petersburg, the only other city with such a measure. But the ordinance would allow St. Petersburg to keep its tenants bill of rights if it decided to do so.
While St. Petersburg’s ordinance allows landlords to deny vouchers if the government assistance would impact their insurance rates, Pinellas County’s does not include that exception.
Carol Stricklin, Pinellas County housing and community development director, noted how difficult it would be to verify claims from landlords of insurance impacts and said such an exception would contradict the ordinance’s goal of anti-discrimination.
The ordinance passed 5-2 with commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voting no.
In supporting the ordinance, Commissioner René Flowers outlined the many challenges renters in the county and across the state have faced, from lack of housing availability to discrimination against vouchers. While discussing the first version of the ordinance in June, commissioners heard comments from the Pinellas County Housing Authority about residents who had enough funds to cover rent but were turned away because they were using government vouchers.
“People can’t afford to live here or they can’t afford to travel between Polk and Pasco county where the rents are a little cheaper,” Flowers said.
But Peters argued the ordinance would not solve some of those broader affordability issues, and Eggers questioned the unintended consequences for landlords.
When considering income eligibility in cases of housing vouchers, the ordinance also adds more protection for renters than the St. Petersburg measure. If a landlord requires tenants in general to show they have income worth three times the amount of rent, for example, the voucher tenant will only have to show they earn three times times what they pay out of pocket. The government subsidy portion would cover the remaining rent payment.
Eric Garduño, government affairs director for the Bay Area Apartment Association argued that could result in landlords accepting tenants who can’t afford to pay basic costs of living beyond rent.
“Landlords are going to be put between a rock and a hard place,” Garduño said.
For rent increases higher than 5%, landlords will be required to provide notice on a tiered basis: 60 days for yearly leases, 30 days for leases of three months to one year, and 15 days for month-to-month leases.
Notice will be required for any late fee issued, to include the justification for the fee and the amount being charged, according to the ordinance.
The ordinance will also require that landlords inform tenants of their rights, documents that will be approved by County Administrator Barry Burton but which will generally include contact information for organizations to provide assistance and various local, state and federal laws.
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Housing advocates applauded the commission’s ordinance, saying it will help protect some of the most vulnerable residents.
“The landlords’ concerns ... are related to their profits, but our tenant rights to housing should supersede landlords’ drive to profit,” said Karla Correa of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.