ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Richie Floyd wants to help tenants before the eviction process even begins.
The council members on the Youth and Family Services committee held a discussion with city officials on Thursday about how St. Petersburg could increase the availability of legal representation for tenants, particularly in eviction hearings.
Floyd proposed a service that could help tenants regardless of income because some existing legal services only help tenants under certain income brackets. The service could represent tenants in court, for example, or help them find other resources. If such a service is created, he wants the city to market it and get the word out to tenants.
“There’s no income limit to the people who are struggling in our city right now,” Floyd said.
City administrator Rob Gerdes said the city could reallocate an employee from the neighborhood affairs department to a dedicated position tracking eviction filings and notifying tenants of available services. Or, the employee could act as a liaison for tenants’ rights issues.
Floyd invited William Peña Wells, a Gulfcoast Legal Services attorney who focuses on housing in Pinellas, to talk about the growing need for legal aid for tenants. Peña Wells said the playing field in evictions cases is leveled when there are attorneys on both sides.
“We’re seeing a lot more people who would never think that they’d be in this situation,” Peña Wells said.
Assistant City Attorney Bradley Tennant said the city needs to tread carefully if the liaison were to give legal advice instead of just referring people to services and existing legal aid organizations.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she was excited by the idea of the city providing legal representation to renters.
“If (landlords) know who they’re dealing with, sometimes when you level that playing field, it makes a huge difference,” she said. “I would love to see that for those facing eviction. Giving some pamphlet and saying ‘Go here,’ to me, that’s not enough investment to the renters.”
City officials will present options at a future committee meeting.
Karla Correa and William Kilgore, organizers with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, already go through eviction filings to help tenants. They were present Thursday to support Floyd’s proposal.
“It shouldn’t be volunteers doing this,” Correa said. “It should be a service that the city provides.”