St. Petersburg renters could soon have bill of rights

If passed, the rule would prohibit landlords from declining rental vouchers, and would also regulate late fees. City Council votes Sept. 19.
Council member Amy Foster has spearheaded the tenant bill of rights. Scott Keeler  |  Times
Council member Amy Foster has spearheaded the tenant bill of rights. Scott Keeler | Times
Published September 12

ST. PETERSBURG — Money is money, right?

When it comes to renting an apartment, that’s not always the case. Landlords can decline potential renters who come with housing vouchers.

But a new ordinance being considered by St. Petersburg’s City Council would prevent that practice, ensuring a voucher is good for any rental anywhere in the city.

“In theory, the 2.2 million Housing Choice Voucher holders in the U.S. can live anywhere they want,” according to a white paper on the issue written by Council member Amy Foster, but “their choices are often constrained by landlords who won’t participate in the program.”

Dubbed the tenants bill of rights, it would prevent anyone who is listing a place for rent from discriminating against potential renters. City Council will hold its second reading and public hearing on the ordinance at the Sept. 19 meeting. Council members unanimously advanced it from first reading last week with no discussion.

The voucher rule seeks to prevent discrimination against renters based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, marital status, political affiliation, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, gender identity or expression, veteran or service member status, or lawful source of income.” Many of those are already protected classes.

The “source of income” component is what Foster, who has spearheaded the bill of rights on council, hopes will put an end to landlords declining vouchers. The practice leads to people with housing vouchers living together in clusters.

She said some landlords don’t accept vouchers because it subjects them to inspections and standards.

“I ran on a platform to deal with slumlords,” said Foster, who chairs the Homeless Leadership Board. “The intent behind that is that people are in safe and secure quality housing, not just in substandard housing.”

The Bay Area Apartment Association, which represents property owners and who reached out to Foster about the bill of rights proposal, said they were still assessing the ordinance.

“We would support anything that’s fair and reasonable," said Eric Garduño, the organization’s government affairs director. "We are still evaluating the ordinance to understanding its implications, and determine if it is indeed fair and reasonable.”

The ordinance would also prevent discriminatory advertising, and attempts to steer people toward housing based on their inclusion in a protected class.

According to Foster, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have rules preventing landlords from declining rent vouchers.

But voucher-holders aren’t the only ones who the rule could benefit. Foster said rental redlining continues to occur in St. Petersburg, and people with disabilities and LGBTQ people often face discrimination while renting.

Violating that portion of the ordinance would come with a $500 fine.

Another facet of the ordinance deals with fees assessed to tenants who are late on their rental payments.

The ordinance would require landlords to provide written notice of delinquency if a late fee is assessed. The notice would have to justify the late fee, reference the late fee language in the lease and explain the rate at which the fee will accrue.

Foster tied late fees to evictions — there is a high eviction rate in St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue, she said — which can lead to homelessness. Some 6,000 people in Pinellas County qualify as homeless, according to language in the proposed ordinance.

If the ordinance passes, a landlord who fails to provide notice of an assessed late fee would be subject to a $300 fine the first time, and $500 every subsequent time.

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