Here’s the not-so-new news: Florida law is leaning heavily in favor of landlords and property rights. So there’s no cavalry coming to the rescue of renters facing staggering South Florida rent increases.
There is very little governments can do under state law to protect renters from price gouging. But they can protect renters in other ways, such as through the regulation the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously approved this month, requiring landlords to give 60 days’ notice before increasing 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 housing if they don’t plan to pay. But rent increases are rent increases, and many renters won’t find greener pastures elsewhere.
So what else is available or in the pipeline to help renters? The Herald editors have put together some important information renters should know.
State laws prevent cities from imposing caps on rent increases in most cases, and democratic bills in the legislature must be doomed to failure.
There is an exception when a local government may declare a “housing emergency of such severity as to pose a serious threat to the community“. If we’re not already there in Miami-Dade, we’re very close. The city or county would then ask voters to approve control measures for a year, after which the same renewal process would have to go through again, including voter approval.
In December, two dozen Democratic state legislators signed a letter urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency over the “ongoing affordable housing crisis” and directing the attorney general to “recognize rent increases of more than 10% as price gouging.” DeSantis ignored the request. No surprise.
Meanwhile, in December, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to explore the idea of capping rental rates for a year. A similar move is unlikely in Miami-Dade County or the City of Miami given the conservative leanings of some commissioners and backlash from builders and landlords, who have also seen their costs rise thanks to inflation.
Rent control is not the only option local governments have. Other creative solutions include providing tax exemptions to landlords who don’t increase rent above a certain threshold, State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, told the editor. It’s about time local governments gave them serious thought.
A solution that does not help
One of the lawmakers’ solutions to the state’s affordability crisis was Senate Bill 884/House Number 537, which would allow landlords to charge tenants a non-refundable monthly fee in lieu of an upfront security deposit.
Superficially, this would be a relief for tenants who cannot afford expensive moving costs. But here’s the catch: Landlords wouldn’t have to pay back the fees at the end of the lease like they do with security deposits, nor would the payments cover damage beyond normal wear and tear. This means that this supposed solution could cause more hassle and expense for tenants who have no other option. Of course, it’s being powered by LeaseLock, a finance company that offers the fee option in 129 Florida communities.
Lawmakers should offer more protection 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 renters are unaware that they can withhold rent payment if a landlord fails or refuses to perform essential maintenance that renders “the rented premises wholly unlivable,” according to state law. Renter must give seven days prior written notice and allow Owner at least 20 days to make repairs. The Florida Bar Association has a template for this notice and instructions on how and when to withhold rent on its website.
But what is written in the law often deviates from reality. The horror stories of insect infestations, toxic mold in residential units and hostile landlords are commonplace in Miami-Dade, Miami Workers Center’s Zaina Alsous told the Herald Editorial Board. She advises tenants living in uninhabitable conditions to talk to their neighbors who are facing similar problems and to organize – “There is power in the union,” she said.
Where can I get help?
The Miami Workers Center is one of the organizations that connects tenants facing eviction with legal and community defenses. The Miami-Dade County Commission is in the process of establishing an Office of Housing Advocacy, and Commissioners Raquel Regalado and Jean Monestime are working on an ordinance called the Tenant’s Bill of Rights to specify what that office will do.
A draft regulation shows that the bureau would establish, among other things, a tenant information hotline and a website with resources and downloadable forms – ie eviction and rent retention – approved by the Florida Bar and translated into Spanish and Creole.
Fundamental rights of the tenant
Here are some of the things the bill would do:
▪ Landlords could not require prospective tenants to disclose a prior eviction until their application has been approved. That information is public knowledge, but Regalado said the rule would give applicants the opportunity to be approved face-to-face without a prior eviction weighing against them.
▪ When a rental unit is sold, the seller or buyer must provide tenants with a monthly lease 60 days’ notice if the sale will result in the termination of the lease.
▪ Landlords must notify tenants of their rights no later than 10 days after signing or renewing a lease.
▪ Landlords must notify tenants that a residential building may be unsafe within 14 days of receiving notification.
Tenant rights are “a first step,” Regalado told the editor. It won’t solve tenants’ #1 problem: rising rental costs. And there are other issues that need to be addressed, such as the fact that only 10% of tenants have legal counsel if they face eviction, according to the Workers Center.
But in a state where renters are often left to their own devices, they’ll embrace any help they can get.
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