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Tampa wants to let voters decide on housing emergency

The declaration would allow the city to cap rent increases, but only if voters approve it.
Affordable housing activists walk inside Tampa City Hall to listen to a Tampa City Council staff report on rent stabilization on Feb. 24, 2022. Council members on Thursday voted to move forward with a plan for a ballot measure that would direct the city to declare a housing emergency and, in turn, allow it to limit rent increases.
Affordable housing activists walk inside Tampa City Hall to listen to a Tampa City Council staff report on rent stabilization on Feb. 24, 2022. Council members on Thursday voted to move forward with a plan for a ballot measure that would direct the city to declare a housing emergency and, in turn, allow it to limit rent increases. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Jul. 28|Updated Jul. 28

TAMPA — City Council members voted Thursday to move forward with a plan to let residents decide whether the city should declare a housing emergency.

If the measure makes it onto the November general election ballot, and if voters approve it, the city would be allowed to cap rent increases.

Florida’s laws around rent stabilization, however, mean it could face legal challenges.

Council member Orlando Gudes pitched the idea during Thursday’s meeting, along with a draft of the housing emergency ordinance.

The council voted 6-1 to have city attorneys write a formal version. Members will have to approve the ordinance Aug. 18, in time to meet the deadline for November ballot measures. A first public reading of the proposal is set for Aug. 4.

Related: Tampa City Council seeks to bolster tenant rights

Gudes cited skyrocketing rental rates — more than a 30% year-over-year jump around Tampa — and spikes in homelessness in tandem with the region’s growth in recent years. He said he could no longer stand to hear from families who “are forced between choosing rent and choosing the necessities of life.”

“I’ve had my lights turned off. I’ve gone without eating,” he said. “I’m doing this because I understand what some of these people are talking about.”

Gudes’ draft proposes two kinds of rent limits: Landlords would only be able to increase rent once in a 12-month period, with a 5% cap or the average Consumer Price Index bump from the previous year, whichever is lower.

State laws on rent control, which limit cities’ options for stabilization, could set up legal challenges should the ordinance pass — a likelihood that several council members, including Gudes, acknowledged.

“I guarantee people in Tallahassee, 20 to each of us, are watching this right now, and they’ve got pen to paper, (saying,) ‘We’re going to stop this, we’re going to preempt this,’” council chair Joseph Citro said. “We’ve got a great lawyer team. … They can fight the fight, we can shake the tree.”

Related: Tampa City Council shows little appetite for rent controls

The draft ordinance proposed several exceptions to the rent stabilization measures, including second homes and seasonal or vacation rentals. It also nodded to one of the laws hemming in local rent-control efforts: a 1977 statute that barred rent stabilization on “luxury apartment buildings” — defined then as any place with an average rent of $250 or more per unit. (Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that would be about $1,200 today.)

Earlier this year, after considering the complications of the “luxury” statute and the likelihood of lawsuits, the St. Petersburg City Council shied away from declaring a housing emergency. The law also holds that, in a lawsuit over rent stabilization, the city would be forced to prove its necessity — not the plaintiff, who usually carries burden of proof in civil lawsuits.

The one “no” vote on Gudes’ proposal came from council member Bill Carlson, who argued that the city should focus on lobbying for changes in state law. Making Tampa a “guinea pig” for rent stabilization amid current state law, he said, would result in hurting residents even more.

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But the rest of the council agreed that putting the idea to voters is necessary — even if “I know I’m going to lose” the ensuing lawsuit, as council member Charlie Miranda put it.

“We can’t be afraid to test the waters,” Gudes said in an interview after the vote. “We’ve got to do something. It may not be perfect, but we have to try.”

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