St. Petersburg City Council should reject rent control | Editorial
City has better options to address crisis in affordable housing
Concerned residents advocated for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Aug. 4 in St. Petersburg.
Concerned residents advocated for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Aug. 4 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 10|Updated Aug. 11

One by one, for weeks, residents in cities across Florida have begged their local governments for help with rising rents, as double-digit increases are forcing some to the financial brink with no relief in sight. Their stories are heartbreaking, the pain is spreading, and local officials are understandably moved to do something — anything. But the rent control measure the St. Petersburg City Council is scheduled to consider Thursday could easily do more harm than good.

The council voted 4-3 last week to move forward with a resolution declaring a housing emergency and proposing draft language for a rent control referendum on the November ballot. Florida law provides a narrow path for this authority; local governments must establish that the housing crisis is “so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.” Voters must approve the measure and any rent controls expire within one year.

Under language released Wednesday, St. Petersburg would limit hikes to the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index from the preceding year. Under state law, the caps cannot apply to seasonal or tourist units, second homes or luxury apartments. St. Petersburg would also exempt other residences, including public housing and privately-owned units with rent subsidized by federal Section 8 housing vouchers.

St. Petersburg’s proposal largely mirrors the language of a rent control cap that Tampa’s city council rejected last week. It also has the same flaws that convinced its sister city across the bay to explore other ways of helping rent-ravaged residents. For example, nothing prevents landlords from launching a preemptive strike by hiking rents before any cap takes effect. The limits do not automatically renew after one year; local governments have to repeat the entire process — declare a crisis, schedule a vote and pass the measure at the ballot box — before any cap could continue.

As with measures considered in other cities, St. Petersburg’s proposal includes language that would allow landlords to challenge any caps. Landlords could claim the limitation denies them a “fair and reasonable return” on investment, and they could seek an exception from council for a host of reasons, from facing higher property taxes to unforeseen maintenance. State law also puts the burden of proof on local governments if any rent control measure is contested in court. These are all invitations for litigation that could render the protection toothless and likely result in costly legal battles for taxpayers.

If the prospect of rent controls prompts landlords to jack up rents, that will hurt the most vulnerable residents who are the least able to absorb any more immediate price increases. Landlords could intimidate the city with lawsuits, comfortable that Florida provides few protections for cities. That’s one reason why only one local government has availed itself of this law in the 45 years since it was enacted. And that came only Tuesday, when the sharply divided Orange County Commission voted 4-3 to move its rent stabilization ordinance to the fall ballot.

It’s not St. Petersburg’s fault that Florida’s rent control statute was meant to fail by design. But there’s also nothing gained by providing residents false hope. St. Petersburg’s city attorney underscored another key wrinkle Wednesday, advising that the council approve an ordinance, not a lesser resolution, to call the referendum. That could mean missing the deadline for the November ballot.

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Council advocates for rent control are playing a weak hand late in the game. Better for St. Petersburg to explore other avenues: Expanding housing and tenant assistance, incentivizing developers and getting more creative with land development to augment the rental market supply. Longer term, local governments across Florida need to push the Legislature to dedicate more money for affordable housing. It’d be a shame for these precious dollars to go to lawyers and settlements with landlords because the council wanted to score a symbolic political win.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.


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