Florida Democrats, advocates say rent stabilization and right to counsel could help address the state’s housing and eviction crisis

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Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. photo by Infrogmation via Wikimedia commons

Florida Democrats are calling on Governor Ron DeSantis to add the state’s housing crisis to the agenda of a special legislative session focused on Florida’s property insurance market that’s scheduled to begin next week. 

During a Wednesday press conference, streamed live on Facebook, several Democrats and a community advocate from Miami said measures such as rent stabilization, the right to legal counsel for tenants at risk of eviction, and increasing incentives for affordable housing development could help mitigate the housing and eviction crisis at hand — if there’s the political will to make it happen.

‘Housing does not look at your political affiliation’

Last month, 28 House Democrats, including local Reps. Fentrice Driskell, Michele Rayner, and Ben Diamond, sent a letter to Gov. DeSantis, calling on him to expand the special session agenda. Specifically, they want legislators to have the chance to explore bipartisan solutions to a statewide issue of unaffordable housing.

“Regardless of whether they own a home or rent, Florida’s housing crisis is affecting workers and seniors throughout the state and it is time to take action,” a Wednesday news release from House Democrats reads.

Democratic lawmakers say the struggles of Floridians to both find and retain stable housing has largely gone unaddressed on a state-level, to the detriment of working families. During the press conference on Wednesday, several House Democrats, including Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando, said Florida’s housing crisis isn’t discriminating: It’s affecting Floridians across party lines. 

“Whether you’re a young person just entering the workforce, a single parent, a family unit, or a senior on a fixed income, someone who’s on disabilities – housing does not look at your party affiliation,” said Eskamani. “It impacts every person of every economic background.”

While Democrats filed legislation this year intended to address housing issues, those failed to gain ground. Florida Senator Victor Torres, for instance, filed a bill (SB 570) that would have allowed local city and county governments to override state preemption laws that prevent the enactment of rent control measures.

“More than 50 years ago this preemption was created that denies cities or counties from setting up local housing programs like rent-controlled apartments or subsidized local housing programs. I believe cities and counties need more flexibility to do what is best for their communities to create more affordable housing choices for their residents,” wrote Torres in a statement about his bill earlier this year. 

That bill, and an identical House version, died in their respective chambers at the end of the state legislature’s regular session in March.

Meanwhile, Republican-sponsored bills targeting abortion access, staffing standards in nursing homes, and other so-called culture war issues were prioritized by the state’s GOP, who hold a majority in both the State House and Senate.

Focusing on the real issues

Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg said on Wednesday that there is a vast disconnect between what the Republican majority have prioritized in Tallahassee, and “the real issues” Floridians say they’re facing on the ground.

“All I can say is that we are at a point of crisis and desperation that I have not heard before in my time in office,” said Diamond. “We spent a long session in Tallahassee involved in the culture war fight, but culture-war fights don’t help real people pay the bills.”

Over the last year, Florida has been the hotspot for some of the highest housing cost spikes in the nation. In Tampa Bay, rent prices shot up 24% last year. And a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School found that nearly half of St. Petersburg renters, and about a quarter of homeowners, spend 30% or more of their income on rent. 

Coming up with solutions

But there are solutions that could help alleviate the crisis. Community advocate Adrian Madriz of Miami said lawmakers could do several things to help Floridians find or retain stable, affordable housing. For example, getting rid of state pre-emption that ties the hands of local governments, thus allowing cities and counties to enact housing measures that make sense in their communities.

Madriz, who’s executive director of the nonprofit Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH) organization in South Florida, also proposed guaranteeing legal support for tenants who are at risk of or facing eviction. That’s known as a right-to-counsel policy, which has been enacted in dozens of local governments and several states nationwide.

A lot of the time, we’re seeing that people are being evicted and they’re not necessarily being given the benefit of, at the very minimum, counsel for their eviction case,” said Madriz. “And if we had right to counsel in the state of Florida, that wouldn’t be an issue. Just having counsel alone would prevent 68% of all evictions from happening.”

The city of St. Petersburg is one of several local governments currently considering a right-to-counsel policy for tenants who face eviction. 

But Madriz said the “biggest thing” elected officials could enact to provide immediate relief for Floridians struggling to afford housing costs would be rent stabilization, also known as rent control. Rent stabilization is a policy that prevents landlords from price-gouging, or increasing rent to a level that’s above what anyone could reasonably be considered fair or just.

“What it does is it prevents some of these more egregious, very greedy speculative increases that happen of 25 and 50% that have no basis in economic reality,” said Madriz, who pointed to a statewide law in Oregon that caps rent increases to a certain percentage, calculated by the state annually.

While many elected officials – including city leaders in Tampa and St. Petersburg – have balked at the idea, Madriz said it’s a common-sense measure that city leaders should pursue. It’s also a measure that Florida Governor DeSantis could put into place himself. “That’s something the governor absolutely has the power to do, but only if he acts,” said Madriz.

Several Democrats, including Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, said legislators could also work on capping the number of rental homes allowed in certain areas and increasing incentives for developers to build housing units that are affordable for lower- and middle-income Floridians. 

Preparing for session

As it is, Democrats know they’re outnumbered in the state legislature. But they’re hoping their Republican colleagues will see reason and understand that this is an issue affecting all of their constituents, regardless of party affiliation. 

The Florida Legislature will be convening for a second special session, focused on property insurance, Monday morning.

As demonstrated with a first special legislative session that called lawmakers back to Tallahassee last month, Gov. DeSantis has the ability to add affordable housing to the agenda. If, that is, there is the political will.

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