There is a common theme we hear as we gather with colleagues, friends and family this holiday season: housing prices are out of control. All of us have been affected by the rising costs of living or know someone who has been.
Whether you are looking to rent or buy a house, you’ll have to pay nearly 25 percent or more than before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no secret to anyone living here that corporate investors are buying homes and land at an alarming rate, at prices well above market value, driving up costs for rents and mortgages in our area. We are in the midst of a housing crisis, as one by one, people are being priced out from blocks they have called home for decades.
Consider Charles Sorenson: He was born and raised in St. Petersburg. Last month, his landlord refused to renew his lease in favor of an investor who wanted to develop his property as a short-term, Airbnb-style rental. Charles was forced to leave the city he’s called home his whole life. He had to move nearly an hour away from his home.
Right now, the cost to rent in the Tampa Bay area has surpassed major cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Austin. In fact, rents in the Tampa Bay area have been steadily increasing for the last 16 months, exceeding national averages.
This crisis is affecting all of us, and it’s disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable residents and over-burdened workforce. Everyone deserves the right to afford a safe place to live.
To find solutions, we typically look to our local and state governments, both of which have different levels of oversight to address this crisis head on. State leaders in Tallahassee have the opportunity to create an equitable playing field by fully funding affordable housing through the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund and allowing municipalities to decide what works best for them locally.
Instead, state Republican leaders voted against a proposed $400 million allocation to the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund. In the budget for next year, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed $355 million this week toward the same fund, about $45 million shy of what was proposed last year. Based on past budget cycles, it is doubtful the full allocation will remain in the final budget.
In contrast, state Sen. Gary Farmer and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, along with dozens of their Democratic colleagues, sent a joint letter to the governor this week detailing the critical need for a state of emergency in Florida on housing affordability. This declaration would crack down on landlords taking advantage of the pandemic by price gouging rents.
The same day, the St. Petersburg City Council took action to look into a similar state of emergency for the municipality. Members voted in favor of looking into the legal feasibility of declaring a housing state of emergency and preventing rent increases for a year. This just a few months after an important vote on a new zoning designation that could allow increased density in areas with close proximity to mass transit.
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These measures would not have moved forward without our community advocates. The People’s Council of St. Petersburg led the community in calling for the housing state of emergency, while groups like Yes In My Backyard St. Pete stood up and pushed for expanding zoning laws to increase access to more housing options.
Advocates share a common goal in seeing affordable housing options expand. Their easily adoptable ideas include zoning reform to encourage the creation of more affordable units, regulating income levels on higher-density developments, and increased notice for tenants facing rent increases. All of this and more could be a reality for thousands struggling with this crisis.
As a candidate for state Senate District 24, I believe that our communities deserve to choose what happens in our neighborhoods, including how we handle our housing crisis. In many cases, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but fully funding the Sadowski Trust Fund and protecting local government’s ability to choose what is best for their city would be a good start — and it can happen immediately through state action.
Charles, and many like him, do not have the luxury of waiting for state leaders. We all know that the cost of housing is just too high, and it is possible to create good policies that have lasting effects for everyone — we just need state leaders who are willing to step up and make us a priority.
Eunic Ortiz is running as a Democrat for State Senate District 24, covering most parts of Pinellas County. She has worked in advocacy and government for nearly 15 years and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Florida and a member of the Tampa Bay Workforce Development Committee.