Tampa City Council shows little appetite for rent controls

Only two City Council members signaled support for declaring a housing emergency after hours of often emotional testimony about runaway rents.
Affordable housing activists walk inside Tampa City Hall to listen to a City Council staff report on rent stabilization on Thursday.
Affordable housing activists walk inside Tampa City Hall to listen to a City Council staff report on rent stabilization on Thursday. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Feb. 24, 2022|Updated Feb. 25, 2022

TAMPA — City Council members spent more than three hours Thursday listening to dozens of harrowing stories about the personal cost of runaway rents for residents of Florida’s third-largest city.

Activists wanted council members to declare a housing emergency under state law, triggering a process that would allow residents to vote for one-year rent controls.

But only one council member, chairperson Orlando Gudes, voiced clear support for the idea.

Instead, council members agreed to have city staff bring back an ordinance in April to require that landlords give tenants six months notice before they can raise rents.

They all agreed to formally characterize rapidly rising rents as a “crisis,” and directed city staff to report back with ideas about how to tackle it by late May.

But no one made a motion to advance the effort to declare a housing emergency, the key step in Florida for pursuing temporary rent controls.

City officials announced $1 million in rental assistance will be available by March 1. That money could help up to 100 households, said Kayon Henderson, the city’s manager of housing and community development in an email.

Testimony from people unable to pay rents that have increased by hundreds of dollars in the last year solidified that consensus Thursday.

A middle-aged woman who has lived in New Tampa for eight years told council members that she returned to her apartment recently to find her rent had been raised by more than $500, to nearly $1,800 a month.

“I have nowhere to go,” said the woman, whose name couldn’t be verified by city clerks.

Another woman, ErrDaisha Floyd, recalled her mother’s warning that gentrification would drive most Black people out of Florida’s third-largest city.

Ernest Coney Jr., chief executive officer of Corporation to Develop Tampa Inc., said people who grew up in the city are being forced out.

“The term Tampanian is becoming an endangered species,” Coney said. “We have to do something.”

Gudes offered his own stories, saying he sees more and more mothers bringing their children to McDonald’s or Burger King in the mornings to use the bathrooms to get them ready for school.

“That’s a problem for me. We can’t be cowards, this council, no matter what nobody else does,” said Gudes, who pushed for city staff to report at a workshop Thursday on the viability of declaring a one-year housing emergency. That would allow voters decide whether to impose controls on rents for a year. If passed, they could be renewed by voters on an annual basis.

Related: Tampa City Council chairman eyes temporary rent controls

City legal staff said state case law is silent on the 1977 statute that permits cities to temporarily declare housing emergencies. No Florida city has attempted to do so. And a judge could interpret the law as exempting rental units of more than about $1,150 a month, which would exclude much of the city’s housing stock, said assistant city attorney Rebecca Johns.

City Council will have until Aug. 15 to schedule a referendum, said Johns.

Deputy city attorney Morris Massey said the city would be sued and money that could help residents would be diverted to attorneys.

He recommended that the city hire an expert to compile data that would support declaring a housing emergency.

Two council members voiced willingness to take the legal risk, although one of them later appeared to waver.

“Why are we so afraid of a lawsuit? It’s the people’s money, it’s their city, they’ve lived here all their lives,” said Gudes, who represents East Tampa, parts of West Tampa and downtown.

Joseph Citro, who holds a citywide seat, at one point said that the issue should go to voters.

“We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” Citro said. “Send it out to the people and prepare for legal battles.”

But Citro later said that the state had “bound” the city’s hands and good-paying jobs are needed to help alleviate the housing crisis.

Other council members agreed the housing crisis is a destabilizing threat, but they didn’t express support for a referendum. Luis Viera, who represents North and New Tampa, said it was “brutal,” but worried about unintended consequences.

Charlie Miranda said the city should explore building some kind of public housing on city-owned land, but said rent control could hurt those it was intended to help.

Bill Carlson said he would vote against any rent control measures. He said landlords would double rents before any control took effect and again after the emergency ended.

“Why would we pass something that we know will hurt people?” Carlson asked, saying the idea was a headline-grabbing idea, but ineffective.

The city’s rental assistance program will help people earning up to 140 percent of the median area income or $103,320 for a family of four would be eligible. A single person earning more than $72,000 would also qualify. Payments would go to the landlord, Henderson said.

Rapidly rising rents were “a menace to society,” but the city could offer more immediate relief, said council member Guido Maniscalco.

“Is it worth spending the money and manpower to fight a lawsuit when we have $1 million now? With the budget coming up, maybe we can have more,” Maniscalco said.

As rents across Tampa Bay have skyrocketed in the past year, rent control has become a hot-button issue. In St. Petersburg, a push to declare a housing emergency was defeated in a City Council committee earlier this month.

Dozens of people, among them activists, community organizers and housing rights groups wearing red shirts, rallied outside Old City Hall, then listened to the debate and made public comments via video from a floor below at Tampa’s Old City Hall as pandemic restrictions remain in place.

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to requests for Mayor Jane Castor’s position on declaring a housing emergency, instead directing a reporter to her comments made at an appearance in South Tampa last week.

Castor told a crowd at a McDonald’s that her staff had researched rent control measures, but that the housing crisis is a problem related to supply and demand. She said she encourages developers to include affordable and workforce housing in their plans, adding the problem wouldn’t be solved overnight.

Related: Jane Castor visits South Tampa gets an earful