Here’s the not-so-new news: Florida law leans heavily in favor of landlords and property rights. Therefore, there is no cavalry coming to the rescue of tenants facing staggering rent increases in South Florida.
There is very little that governments can do under state statutes to protect renters from price gouging. But they can protect tenants in other ways, such as through the ordinance the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously passed this month that requires landlords to give 60 days notice before raising rent by more than 5 %. That rule could be extended to the rest of Miami-Dade County under legislation proposed by Commissioner Eileen Higgins.
Sixty days gives renters time to look for cheaper living options if they don’t plan to pay. But a rent increase is a rent increase, and many renters won’t find greener pastures elsewhere.
So what else is available, or in the pipeline, to help tenants? The Herald Editorial Board has compiled important information renters should know.
State law prevents cities and towns from imposing limits on rent increases in most cases and Democratic bills in the Legislature change they are doomed.
There is an exception if a local government can declare a “housing emergency that is so serious as to constitute a serious threat to the general public.” If we haven’t reached Miami-Dade yet, we’re very close. The city or county would then ask voters to approve the control measures for one year, after which the same process would have to be repeated for renewal, including voter approval.
In December, two dozen Democratic state legislators signed a letter calling on Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency due to the “current affordable housing crisis” and direct the state attorney general to “recognize any increase in rental prices greater than 10% as price gouging.” DeSantis ignored the request. There is no surprise there.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg City Council voted in December to explore the idea of capping rental prices for a year. A similar move is unlikely to happen in Miami-Dade County or the city of Miami, given the conservative leaning of some commissioners and the backlash it would face from builders and homeowners, who have also seen their costs rise thanks to to inflation.
Rent control is not the only option local governments have. Other creative solutions include providing tax breaks for landlords who don’t raise rent above a certain threshold, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, told the Editorial Board. It is time for local governments to start thinking about them seriously.
A solution that won’t help
One of the Legislature’s solutions to the state’s housing affordability crisis has been Senate Bill 884/House Bill 537that would allow landlords to charge tenants a non-refundable monthly fee instead of an up-front security deposit.
On the surface, this would offer relief for renters who can’t afford high moving costs. But here’s the rub: Landlords would not be required to return fees at the end of the lease like they do with security deposits, nor would the payments apply to damage beyond normal wear and tear. That means this supposed solution could cause more trouble and expense for tenants who have no other choice. Of course, it’s being powered by LeaseLock, a finance company that provides rate option in 129 Florida communities.
The Legislature should offer more protections to renters, not make them more vulnerable to potentially predatory practices that opponents liken to payday loans that trap the working class in an endless cycle of debt.
Can I withhold my rent?
Many tenants are unaware that they can withhold rent if a landlord has failed or refused to provide major maintenance that makes “the leased premises totally unrentable,” according to State Law. The tenant must provide seven days’ written notice and give the landlord at least 20 days to make the repairs. The Florida Bar has a template of that notice on their website and instructions on how and when to withhold rent.
However, what is in the law often differs from reality. Horror stories of bug infestations, toxic mold in apartment units and unfriendly landlords are common in Miami-Dade, as Zaina Alsous of the Miami Workers Center told the Herald Editorial Board. Her advice is for tenants living in uninhabitable conditions to talk to their neighbors facing similar problems and get organized: “There is power in the union,” she said.
Where do I go for help?
The Miami Workers Center is one of the organizations that connect tenants at risk of eviction to legal and community defense. The Miami-Dade County Commission is in the process of creating an Office of Housing Advocacy, and Commissioners Raquel Regalado and Jean Monestime are working on an ordinance called the Tenant Bill of Rights to outline what that office will do.
A draft ordinance shows that the office would, among other things, create a tenant information helpline and web page with resources and downloadable forms, i.e. eviction and rent withholding, approved by the Florida Bar and translated into Spanish and Creole.
Tenant Bill of Rights
Here are some of the things the bill would do:
▪ Landlords cannot require prospective tenants to disclose a prior eviction until their application is approved. That information is public record, but Regalado said the rule would give applicants a face-to-face opportunity to get approved without a prior eviction weighing against them.
▪ If a rental unit is sold, the seller or buyer must give tenants 60 days’ notice with a month-to-month agreement if the sale will result in termination of leases.
▪ Require landlords to provide tenants with notice of their rights no later than 10 days after a lease is signed or renewed.
▪ Require landlords to notify tenants within 14 days of receiving notice that a residential building may be unsafe.
The Tenant Bill of Rights is “a first step,” Regalado told the Editorial Board. It won’t solve the #1 problem tenants face: high rental costs. And there are other issues that need to be addressed, like the fact that only 10% of renters have legal representation when facing eviction, according to the Workers Center.
But in a state where renters are often left on their own, they’ll take whatever help they can get.
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