With controversial language removed, St. Pete tenant bill of rights sails through

The new ordinance is meant to reduce housing discrimination and lower eviction rates.
St. Petersburg's City Council just passed a tenant bill of rights.
St. Petersburg's City Council just passed a tenant bill of rights. [ SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Susan Taylor Martin ]
Published Nov. 8, 2019|Updated Nov. 12, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — A once-controversial proposal to protect renters’ rights sailed through City Council on Thursday after officials tweaked the language.

The vote was unanimous and council members expressed hope that the so-called tenants bill of rights will reduce housing discrimination and lower eviction rates, and thereby homelessness rates.

“I think it’s extremely needed in our community,” said Kimberly Rodgers, executive director of the Community Law Program, which provides free legal services to local residents who can’t hire an attorney.

As passed, the ordinance prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, marital status, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, gender identity or expression, or veteran or service member status.” Council member Amy Foster said rental discrimination still happens in St. Petersburg, particularly against LGBTQ residents and those with disabilities. She spearheaded the proposal.

RELATED: St. Petersburg renters could soon have bill of rights

The bill of rights also requires landlords to provide written notice before assessing late fees. Once late fees pile up, residents can be put out quickly. Advocates who spoke at Thursday’s meeting said it’s harder for a family to find a new home after being put out on the street.

What the ordinance doesn’t do, though, is prohibit discrimination based on a renter’s source of income. Practically speaking, that means landlords can turn away tenants who come with rental vouchers.

That prohibition had been in the original version. But at a Sept. 19 meeting, when council members were set to pass the ordinance, landlords and property managers flooded the chambers in opposition. More than 30 decried the requirement to accept vouchers, saying it would subject them to costly regulations that delay the rental process.

According to Foster, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have rules preventing landlords from declining rent vouchers. Yet council members agreed to table the discussion.

When it came back up Thursday, the ordinance no longer included a source of income provision. There were also far fewer landlords in attendance.

Instead, council members were greeted with a groundswell of support. Of the 17 people who spoke during the public comment period, all but two were enthusiastically behind the proposal.

“I speak to you as a landlord, and as a landlord I am completely in support of this," said Bruce Nissen, who owns a rental property near Woodlawn. "There’s nothing in here that isn’t good practice as a landlord.”

Daniel Rothrock, president of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, was one of two speakers to oppose the ordinance. He said the late fee notice requirements won’t help solve the affordable housing and homelessness problems the city faces.

Correction: Bruce Nissen owns rental property near Woodlawn Park. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location.