Renters in St. Petersburg have achieved an important victory with the City Council’s approval of a new policy that provides them more protection. It’s a step in the right direction for a community that has a large number of renters, and many of those residents spend a considerable chunk of their paycheck on rent each month. But as the City Council moves forward with more proposals regarding renters, it should pay attention to the balance between the rights and responsibilities of renters and landlords.
The policy approved by the City Council last week is vastly different than the original proposal that generated so much opposition in September. This version of the ordinance affects renters on two counts. There is a broader definition of housing discrimination, and more clarity in how landlords must notify their tenants of accrued late fees. Both have a large impact on renters and can lead to eviction. The policy expands the federal Fair Housing Act’s definition of discrimination, which only encompasses “race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability,” to include “age, marital status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, gender identity or expression" and "veteran or service member status.” The ordinance also requires landlords to provide written notice of late fees assessed to their tenants with the reason for the late fee, if it will continue to accrue and language in the lease that explains what triggers a late fee.
In the coming months, the City Council will continue to discuss whether landlords can discriminate based on source of income and how tenants are notified of their rights prior to signing a lease. Council member Amy Foster, who led effort on the initial tenant bill of rights, has asked for a mandatory notice that tenants be given if their landlord applies with the city to demolish or renovate their property, which could force tenants to have to move out. A second document would require landlords to notify tenants of their rights prior to signing a lease, such as “working plumbing and heating” and “have locking doors and windows.” The most controversial part of the original ordinance centered on adding “lawful source of income" to the discrimination categories. This would essentially require landlords to accept housing vouchers, which some landlords now reject. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of that issue, and it needs more study.
Finding affordable rental properties in St. Petersburg is not easy. The city already has a higher percentage of renters than Florida does on average. In 2017, about 35 percent of Florida households were renters. In 2017, almost 42 percent of St. Petersburg households were renting. And 52 percent of those renters in 2017 were cost-burdened, or spending 30 percent of their gross income or more on housing. Tenants who qualify for housing assistance, like vouchers, are often turned away by landlords in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. Fifteen percent of vouchers issued by the St. Petersburg Housing Authority are returned by tenants who cannot find a home accepting them, while a stunning 40 percent of vouchers are given back to the Pinellas County Housing Authority for the same reason. Even the people who are able to stick out the waiting lists and get public housing assistance have trouble finding housing with that funding.
Not all renters have the same access to information informing them of their rights before they enter a rental agreement. This is one of the best ways to level the playing field. The St. Petersburg City Council has taken an important first step toward ensuring a fairer housing market for all.
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