MidPoint: “The rent is too damn high!”

Devetria Stratford chants slogans at a rally held in support of tenant Elena Riech, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Miami. Reich, who's husband died unexpectedly last year, is a single mother with three children who is at risk of eviction, as she has been unable to pay rent since January. Local organizations such as the Miami Workers Center and the Community Justice Project are involved in her case. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the Florida legislature continues to pass and promote bills addressing non-issues such as ‘woke education’ and discussions of human sexuality, there is still a very real crisis that Florida is facing: housing. Inflation, increased demand with a lack of supply and transportation deficits have left Floridians unable to afford Florida living. In short, the rent is just too damn high.

This week on MidPoint, host Shelley Reback talked about the housing crisis in the Tampa region with city councilman Luis Viera, Angela Medero of the Hillsborough County Social Services Department, and Karla Correa of the St. Petersburg and Tampa Tenants Union.

Listen to the full episode here:

What will Tampa City Council do?

Luis Viera, a member of the Tampa City Council, outlined a few plans and potential steps toward solving the crisis, both in the short-term and eventually the long term. The first step in his plan was introducing the Tenants Bill of Rights, which was passed unanimously by the council. This Bill of Rights has two components: the first provides a mandate that all landlords provide this Bill of Rights to their tenants so that they are aware of their legal rights. The second component prohibits discrimination by landlords based on a renter’s source of income for rent payments. Whether someone gets their income from employment, government benefits, or from housing vouchers, so long as it’s legal, it’s acceptable, according to Viera.

While this is a first step toward helping tenants, Viera noted that there’s still a “NIMBY mentality”: “Not In My Backyard,” when it comes to increasing housing density in the city. Changes that could benefit all are still facing opposition from residents. Zoning and land-use regulations would have to change. “It requires an activist government,” Viera told WMNF, which he hopes to continue to work toward.

Help is available

Angela Medero, the manager of the Hillsborough County Social Services Department, explained the newly re-opened Emergency Rent Relief Program, which began accepting applications on March 1. Following action by the Biden Administration, $28 million of funding has been newly awarded to the program, which can potentially help between 6,000 and 6,500 households in Tampa and Hillsborough County before funding runs out. Depending on eligibility, this funding could not only help to cover the entirety of a tenant’s back rent and utility bills for up to 12 months, and possibly up to 3 months of future rent, utility bills, and fees owed pursuant to the lease.

“The goal of the program is to make sure that households can sustain stability in their households by helping them with their rest assistance and also… utility bills.”

The program does require landlord participation, as the funding is paid directly to the landlord. Medero says that while there has been some skepticism and disapproval from landlords, the department has also managed to make good connections and developed good relationships with them as well.

The online portal for applications to this program is hcflgov.net/R3homehelp and the Call Center phone number is 813-375-9114. Eligibility specialists are available to assist landlords and tenants with the program.

The fight of the tenants

The Tampa/St. Petersburg Tenants Union has only been around since the summer of 2020, but it is outspoken in its advocacy and its demands.

“It’s a tenant-led movement fighting for human rights, and the human right of housing for all,” said Karla Correa, a member of the group. “And in the day-to-day, we organize against mass evictions, rent hikes, landlord harassment and of course all around gentrification.”

Last week, the Union gathered at the Tampa City Council to demand that they call a housing state of emergency. This, Correa says, will allow steps to be taken toward a city-wide referendum that could enact helpful rent control measures. However, the efforts haven’t been met with unanimous support, specifically from the Council itself, as well as landlords and developers.

“This is really an uphill battle but we’re going to keep fighting until we get it because this is something that we absolutely need.”

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