A new law in St. Petersburg bans landlords from discriminating against housing voucher recipients, but some argue it doesn’t go far enough

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Under a new city law, landlords in the increasingly unaffordable city of St. Petersburg can now face a financial penalty for denying housing to applicants who use government assistance, such as Section 8 housing vouchers, to pay for rent.

This new penalty comes as a provision of a new ban on source of income discrimination, which was unanimously approved by St. Pete City Council last year. That law prohibits landlords from refusing to rent a unit to housing applicants on account of how they plan to pay for housing.

In St. Petersburg, that law officially went into effect April 1st. Similar laws passed across the country show it can help increase housing options for housing voucher recipients, and can help them secure suitable housing for themselves and their families. Some housing advocates say, however, that the new law doesn’t go far enough.

Reducing discrimination against renters on government assistance

As of last month, landlords in St. Petersburg can now face a $500 penalty if they’re found in violation of the city’s housing discrimination protections.

Tucked within a new section of the city’s tenant bill of rights ordinance, those protections now prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters based on their source of income. For instance, income that comes from government assistance programs, such as housing choice vouchers (Section 8), social security income, or veterans’ benefits.

According to the Urban Institute, landlord discrimination against housing voucher recipients is common. And it’s not explicitly outlawed under the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, nation of origin, and other protected categories.

To fill in the gap, at least 20 states and over 90 local governments across the country — including several municipal governments in Florida — have passed laws that explicitly ban source-of-income discrimination.

Last December, St. Petersburg joined local governments and states nationwide, by passing its own source of income discrimination law. It’s similar to one that took effect in Hillsborough County early last year, and a law approved by Tampa City Council in March.

But local housing activists say, the new law in St. Petersburg, which is meant to prevent discrimination against voucher recipients, contains loopholes backed by industry groups that could curtail its intended benefits.

‘Gutted’ by local industry groups

As WMNF previously reported, St. Pete City Council unanimously approved the source of discrimination law in December. But, as activists pointed out, the final version of the law contains several provisions that could allow for continued discrimination against voucher recipients.

Devonte Sullivan, a local real estate processor, spoke out against the law last year, along with about a dozen others. In front of City Council, Sullivan asked, “Why are we putting our most vulnerable in legal obstacles when working to support their families, and finding affordable housing in and of itself is two full-time jobs?”

As the law was written, critics like Sullivan worried it contained loopholes — such as time-sensitive inspection requirements, and the ability to reject tenants for reasons that do not explicitly concern their source of income — that could allow for continued discrimination by landlords.

As someone who works firsthand on real estate contracts, Sullivan said, “It’s highly uncommon for inspection processes within realty contracts to be demanded within a week from mutual acceptance. So why is this being made necessary for renters?”

Another local resident, Shelby Smith, echoed Sullivan’s concern. “Even if you were hiring a private inspector, or in the case of HUD, and federal employees and stuff, it’s gonna take long. And if they [landlords] have this advantage over their tenants to reject them if it’s taking more than five days, it’s only going to further destabilize vulnerable people and family and mothers, and leave them in search for a home.”

Karla Correa, who organizes with the St. Pete Tenants Union, also voiced her opposition to the city law back in December. Now that the new changes have gone into effect, Correa echoed Sullivan’s concerns. “The ordinance doesn’t really protect people from discrimination because of all the loopholes that were added by the Bay Area Apartment Association,” Correa told WMNF on Wednesday. She added, “While on the surface, it may look good, it’s really going to have small material impacts for people.”

The Bay Area Association is a local affiliate of one of the nation’s largest real estate industry groups. National and state affiliates, including the Florida Apartment Association, have poured money into state and local races, including city council races in St. Petersburg.

The local group opposed a ban on source-of-income discrimination in St. Pete when it was initially floated in 2019 as a section to be included within the city’s tenants’ bill of rights ordinance.

That ordinance, still in effect today, was spearheaded by former council member Amy Foster, who hoped it would help reduce housing discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ renters and renters with disabilities.

St. Pete City Council members initially supported the idea, but later voted to table it during a public hearing. Last year, Council brought back a “partially redrafted” soure-of-income discrimination ordinance, passed in December, “with a few modifications requested by applicable stakeholders,” – including local industry groups like the BAAA.

Representatives of the BAAA spoke out against a similar anti-housing discrimination ban in Hillsborough County last year. They say the ban would create undue burden on landlords, by opening them up to more inspections and higher insurance costs.

Housing activists say those concerns of the BAAA influenced the language of the newly enacted law. As it is written today, the law allows landlords to legally deny a rental applicant based on the amount of rent they can pay themselves, before government assistance is factored in.

Landlords can also deny a rental unit to an applicant if leasing to them is expected to increase a landlord’s insurance costs. An earlier draft of the ordinance from 2019 did contain the former provision, but not the latter.

Combatting a crisis

Rent prices in St. Petersburg have skyrocketed over the last year, by double-digit percentage points. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment today is nearly $1,600 dollars a month. That’s about 33% higher than it was last year, and more than most working people, or residents on a fixed income can afford, even with financial help.

Housing voucher programs have limitations, as do other local rental assistance programs. Section 8 voucher recipients typically pay 30% of their monthly income on rent, according to the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. Government assistance, and income requirements to qualify for the average-priced apartment, may not be sufficient to help cover the average cost of living, which includes other basic needs, such as childcare, adequate food, and transportation.

Across the bay in Tampa, Shakenya Berrien, a local mother of two boys, told Tampa City Council earlier this year that she was struggling to find housing she could afford, as city leaders deliberated over Tampa’s own source-of-income discrimination ban.

“I want to live in a safe neighborhood and live comfortably,” Berrian, a recipient of rental assistance, told Tampa City Council in March. Working 40 hours a week, bringing in $2680 a month after taxes, she said she didn’t qualify for many of the apartments currently listed, which require that applicants make three times the rent each month. “This is the crisis,” said Berrien, “Rent is going up, but wages aren’t.”

Ushering in change

Correa, of the St. Pete Tenants Union, told WMNF the new administration should strengthen the city’s anti-discrimination ban, as well as the city’s notice-to-vacate ordinance, which activists said was watered down, similar to the source of income ordinance. Both were approved in December by five sitting council members, and three former council members who have since left office.

“Renters in this city come from all walks of life. No person should have to worry about being denied housing because of how they acquire the funding for rent. Government housing vouchers are a guaranteed form of income and allow some of our most struggling residents access to safe housing,” said Welch. “I have met with both tenants and apartment association representatives to fully understand the issue, and I believe that our Tenants Bill of Rights is the correct approach. In addition to voucher acceptance, I support provisions that require notification of tenant rights and late fees, and legal services information, to ensure all of our renters are adequately protected.”

Reporting violations of St. Pete’s housing discrimination law

Under city law, landlords can face a financial penalty for discriminatory practices against renters.

Violations of the anti-discrimination law are punishable by a fine of $500.00 for a first offense and any subsequent offenses. The city can also refer reported violations to any local, state, or federal authority.

Residents of St. Petersburg can learn more about their housing rights here.

To report a violation, St. Pete residents can call the city’s Code Compliance at 727-893-7373.