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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

A real-estate law professor outlines historic obstacles to rent stabilization in Florida

A "For Rent" sign is staked in the front yard of a yellow home
Gabriella Paul
WUSF Public Media
The cost of rent has been skyrocketing in the greater Tampa Bay region and across Florida.

The Florida statute governing rent control originated from an initial court battle between the city of Miami Beach and real-estate tycoons in the 1970s.

With the cost of housing in Florida pricing many out, elected officials have considered putting rent control measures on the midterm ballots in recent months.

Concern about whether such referendums would withstand a lawsuit helped keep a the issue off ballots in St. Petersburg and Tampa. And recently, ahead of the midterm elections, a ballot initiative that was approved in Orange County was ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court.

So, why is it so hard to put rent control measures in place in Florida?

WUSF's Gabriella Paul spoke with Suzanne Hollander, an attorney and professor of real-estate law at Florida International University, to learn more.

Can you break down how rent control is defined by Florida law?

So, Florida Statute 125.0103. states — in the negative — that no law ordinance rule or other measure, which would have the effect of imposing controls on rents shall be adopted or maintained. So it seems as if no law can be adopted to control rent.

But there's exceptions. And the major exception is: [if] it's found [that] rent control is necessary to eliminate an existing housing emergency that is a serious menace to the general public. But "existing housing emergency" and "serious menace to the general public" are not defined terms, and they have not yet been defined by a Florida court.

Furthermore, this law actually carves out any luxury apartment building. And that means that, more or less, any apartment that rents for about $1,200 or more is carved out of this rule. So even if the rent control was passed — even if it was found that there is an existing housing emergency — this law as written still would not apply to many units.

It's important to note that legislation governing rent control does vary state by state. Can you give us an overview of where rent controls are allowable in the country?

There's a discussion nationwide on rent control. But there are only five states plus the District of Columbia that actually have some type of rent control. And it's not always statewide. So the five states are New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland and Oregon.

Can you give us an historical overview of whether rent control has ever been implemented in Florida? And if so, when?

In the 1970s, it was an inflationary time similar to the time that we're in now. In Miami Beach, the city council tried to pass a rent control ordinance. And it was legally challenged. The landlord lobby went up to the state legislature that makes our laws. And Florida Statute 125.0103 was passed. It seems to appease the the landlord lobby by saying that no rent control shall be adopted. But it's very confusing because it says that rent control could be adopted in certain situations.

Elected officials in Florida cities and counties have considered putting rent controls on the ballot in recent months. Can you review the status of these efforts, particularly in Miami-Dade and Orange Counties?

Miami-Dade (County) decided not to impose rent control — despite the fact that rents in South Florida rose over 24 percent between July 2021 And July 2022 ... and that nearly 70 percent of the population in Miami-Dade are renters. They decided that they would work on other measures to try to address the issue.

Orange County tried ... successfully to get the question on the ballot but it was challenged. And it was found by the appellate court on the 27th of October that ... (the rent control measure) was unconstitutional. Although their ballots are printed with the question and voters might see them when they go to vote ... the results of that vote will not be counted.

And it is important to note that the cities of Tampa and St. Pete were also having discussions around putting this measure toward voters in recent months. What are the other factors in our rental market right now that have sparked these conversations?

I think the conversation is really sparked by supply and demand. So I think that another way to have rent come down is to increase supply. And if the government, municipalities can find ways to incentives or to partner with developers to help reduce their costs to build housing that will increase housing supply

What is the path forward to address the rental crisis in Florida?

Rent control is one of several types of tools that can be used to help alleviate the problem created by supply and demand. I think there are some more interesting ways to do it — instead of rent control — perhaps (there) could be more government incentive for private developers to build affordable housing. If the government — municipalities — can find ways to incentivize or to partner with developers to help reduce their costs to build housing that will increase housing supply.

What is the argument for rent control in Florida right now?

The government incentives will fix the problem because it will create more supply, but it takes some time. So the problem is acute right now. And I think that's what [tenants] are saying: The problem is very acute now and we need help now.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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