Tampa Bay residents are feeling the pinch of record rent hikes and local officials are looking for solutions to slow it down. The problem is, they say there’s no one answer.
Some propose rent control. Others veer from that term but demand “rent stabilization” instead. Some want more development to add more housing. Others lost trust in affordable housing programs.
Tampa and St. Petersburg lawmakers are hunting for solutions that won’t get shut down by state officials. Tampa City Council will meet in February for a related workshop. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-1 in favor of exploring rent control and declaring a housing emergency earlier this month.
“Whatever we do, whether it be city or county, we need to make sure that we do it properly. Because I guarantee there will be people in Tallahassee that will want to preempt whatever we do,” Tampa Councilman Joseph Citro said at a rent stabilization discussion in early January ahead of the workshop.
Tampa Bay was ranked the hottest in the nation by Zillow. Rents across the region spiked 24 percent in 2021, according to CoStar, a real estate firm. Most homes in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties sold for more than $350,000 in December, according to Florida Realtors — with the highest yearly increases in Pasco at 29 percent.
Advocacy groups continue to be at odds over how to fix the problem in Tampa Bay, too.
“Would love to see the Tenant’s Union come out in support of literally ANY achievable policies to grow the supply of housing in St. Pete,” the YIMBY St. Pete account tweeted in November. YIMBY stands for “Yes In My Back Yard,” and is part of a national pro-housing and development movement.
”Solutions that maximize profits while providing little benefit to the most vulnerable, on their own, don’t cut it,” the St. Petersburg Tenants Union tweeted back in response. “Flipside, shame y’all refuse to support protections like rent control which would have immediate benefit for tenants, all because developers might pitch a fit.”
While both groups agree Tampa Bay is teetering on becoming unaffordable — and are willing to work with each other to solve the growing crisis — they don’t share much common ground on what to do next.
“None of these (ideas) work alone,” said Christina Plerhoples Stacy, a housing policy researcher at the Urban Institute. “People are often looking for one solution.”
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Rent control or stabilization?
Florida law prohibits rent control unless there’s an existing housing emergency. Rent control can be a divisive term, but the definition isn’t cut and dry. It loosely covers rental regulations like setting caps on the maximum rent or limiting how much rent can increase over time.
The tenants union, formed during the pandemic to protect residents from evictions, is primarily advocating for St. Petersburg to declare a housing emergency in order to establish rent control — a cap that lasts until the market stabilizes, said the group’s founder William Kilgore.
Kilgore said most landlords aren’t increasing rents to cover for taxes and expenses, but to maximize profits. It’s time, he said, for elected officials to stop it.
”The same way if there was a hurricane, every Floridian can relate to that, you got your gas stations trying to charge $100 for a gallon of water, a gallon of milk or gasoline,” Kilgore said. “It’s called price gouging, and it’s illegal.”
But there’s little consensus on if rent control works.
There’ve been a handful of experiments across the country, Stacy said, with different results. While some studies suggest it increases stability for people in rent-controlled units, those benefits are offset by the cost in the uncontrolled market, she said. It might decrease supply as landlords reconsider entering the rental market at all.
Stacy interviewed landlords, developers, tenant advocates and representatives for low-income residents for an Urban Institute study last year. Her findings, published in July, showed that while developers are skeptical about rent control’s ability to provide affordable housing, tenant advocates and community organizers believe it can balance the power dynamics between renters and landlords.
“The benefit to low-income tenants outweighs any negative effects on the market,” Kilgore said. “I think that’s what we got to look at because, again, it’s a balancing business.”
YIMBY St. Pete, the Pinellas County chapter of the “Yes In My Backyard” movement, is neither for or against rent control, said Jillian Bandes, the group’s leader and a project manager at Bandes Construction.
Some prefer “rent stabilization” to “rent control,” which limits how much rents can be raised each year but is not a hard cap.
”I don’t want to see rent control, I want to see it stabilized,” said Kella McCaskill, founder of the Center for Economic Development, which hosted a rent stabilization discussion at the Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City on Jan. 8. Local officials were invited to hear to renters’ concerns.
People shared stories about rents increasing by hundreds of dollars while some begged lawmakers to take action against investors buying up the housing supply.
The median asking rent in Tampa Bay increased by more than 54 percent in 2021, according to analysis from rental listing site Dwellsy. That’s an average of $760 more in rent costs per month for those being forced to relocate and sign new leases.
The housing market is like “musical chairs,” McCaskill said, pushing people further away from city centers in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
“We almost want to give up on Tampa because the rent is so high,” resident and pastor Steve Baron said.
He and his family — including his wife, daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter — have been living in a hotel in Temple Terrace since September after his landlord raised the rent from $1,800 to $2,800. He said they might move to Pasco County, if they can find a place.
The costs are adding up from staying at the hotel, rising storage costs and applying for rentals which can cost around $150 each time, Baron said. There are no refunds for application fees if they get denied.
“I’m just waiting for the ones we’ve applied for, you know? Either way, somebody else is ahead of us,” Baron said. “It’s a battle.”
Rethinking zoning and development
Tampa Bay is becoming more expensive because there’s not enough housing to meet the demand, said YIMBY Tampa leader Nathan Hagen.
Vacancy rates in the region are also at a record low of 4 percent, according to CoStar. But Hagen said it’s a common misconception to think of the housing crisis as only a supply and demand problem.
“I’ll summarize it in three words: End exclusionary zoning,” Hagen said.
Exclusionary zoning are land-use policies designed to limit what type of housing could be built in a specific area. Constructing buildings like duplexes, tiny homes, accessory dwelling units and small-scale apartments is prohibited in most areas around Tampa, Hagen said. Single-family homes became the standard.
”If you can not afford to live in this type of housing, you’re likely in crisis,” he said. “It has been this way for a long time.”
Policies like this were made to reinforce segregation, Hagen said, and that same framework remains today.
Land-use changes aren’t a perfect solution either. The short-term effects can be harmful as developers tend to build higher-end rentals with luxury amenities, which raises surrounding property values, Stacy said. It takes time to see the supply trickle down to lower-income residents.
Opening up zoning restrictions is one area where advocacy groups seem to agree on, said Kilgore with the tenants union, but it doesn’t get at the root of the issue.
“Doesn’t matter how much we grow supply under our current system, we need fundamental change,” the St. Pete Tenants Union twitter account said in a tweet response to YIMBY St. Pete in November.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to rising rents, Stacy said communities should consider a combination of both short- and long-term solutions.
The People’s Council of St. Petersburg, which includes the tenants union and other affordable housing organizations, lists more ideas for policies beyond rent control, such as requiring landlords to tell renters six months in advance of increases of more than 3 percent or pay the costs of rehousing tenants. Other ideas include inclusionary zoning with 40 percent of all new development being affordable housing based on income level and creating a public registry of landlord violations and rent increases.
YIMBY St. Pete also supports inclusionary zoning, but by allocating 5 percent of a new building with more than 20 units to affordable housing. Both representatives of the groups said they hope to see more public-private partnerships encouraging land trusts, where people can build equity on shared property.
Hagen said it’s time for the Tampa Bay community to make it clear that it should not and will not accept 20 percent increases on rent each year ever again.