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Tampa City Council seeks to bolster tenant rights

City Council members approve creating a tenants advocacy office.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco has pushed for the creation of a tenants advocacy office in the city, modeled on a similar effort in South Florida.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco has pushed for the creation of a tenants advocacy office in the city, modeled on a similar effort in South Florida. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Jun. 16|Updated Jun. 16

TAMPA — After another morning of impassioned pleas from residents for relief from spiraling rents, City Council members voted to ask Mayor Jane Castor to create a tenant advocacy office modeled on a similar program in Miami-Dade County.

The Miami-Dade office, which debuted about a month ago, largely functions as a clearinghouse for people seeking help with landlord issues, rent increases and other housing problems, said Rebecca Johns, assistant city attorney. The three-member staff, with an $800,000 budget, doesn’t provide legal advice or representation, and its enforcement powers are very limited, she said.

Some council member were leery that creating another switchboard would just add to the frustrations of desperate people.

“I don’t want to spread false hope,” said council member Charlie Miranda.

But others, including Lynn Hurtak and Guido Maniscalco, argued that having one place to call for renters would help them locate resources more quickly and efficiently.

“Folks just don’t know where to turn for help,” said Maniscalco, who has led the effort to create the office.

Maniscalco proposed having legal staff prepare an ordinance that would create an office for $400,000 annually with two full-time workers. The budget and staffing could be adjusted if needed, he said.

No Castor administration officials addressed the merits of the proposal at Thursday’s meeting. Later Thursday, Castor’s office released a statement noting she had joined council members in supporting a tenant’s bill of rights, but was noncommittal on the advocacy office.

“The Mayor, along with Tampa City Council Members, want to explore all avenues to keep people in their homes,” emailed spokesperson Lauren Rozyla.

Deputy City Attorney Morris Massey told council members that the effort should be made in coordination with the administration, which is in the midst of putting together a budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, and her chief financial officer, Dennis Rogero, should be present then when the issue comes back before council members on Aug. 4, Maniscalco said.

Six council members voted to proceed with the plan. Council member Luis Viera wasn’t present for the vote.

Advocates had been pressing for the city to take a greater role in addressing the housing crisis since early this year, bringing dozens of red shirt-wearing renters to council chambers repeatedly to relay often-harrowing tales of skyrocketing rents, deplorable living conditions and fears of being pushed out of the city.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Robin Lockett, an organizer with Florida Rising, a social justice group that has organized the push in Tampa, shortly before the vote.

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Related: Tampa looks to Miami-Dade, Gainesville for help with housing crisis

Council members had also discussed creating a landlord complaint registry similar to one used in Gainesville but deferred to the administration, which is researching the issue and will report back in July, Massey said.

Council member Bill Carlson urged residents and advocates to keep the pressure on the mayor to back the effort. Council members and the mayor need to work together, he said.

“We need your help,” Carlson said.

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