Rent control was functionally outlawed across Florida in 1977. Now, Orange County has it on the ballot.
By Andrew Fraieli
For the first time in a Florida county in decades, the people will be able vote to establish rent control — at least temporarily.
On the ballot this November for Orange County voters will be a rent control measure that commissioners narrowly passed on August 9. If the ballot initiative passes, it would tie rent increases to the Consumer Price Index for one year.
Immediately, landlords, realtors and apartment managers tried to stop it.
Orange county is not alone though. Other cities and counties are trying to do the same, but the fear of lawsuits by landlords and realtors, and a lack of confidence that rent control won’t make matters worse is stopping cities like St. Petersburg from trying to enact it.
Rent control, and all its contentious possibilities, is not solely limited to modern public opinion though. Whether landlords, renters or Commissioners, rent control in Florida was already shaped 48 years ago because of one Miami Beach City Council meeting in 1974.
Miami Beach’s Short-lived Rent Control
The early 70s in Miami Beach saw Disney World opening in Orlando and siphoning tourism from the beach, an influx of retirees from the north, and, in 1974, the Miami Beach City Council passing a law freezing rents on almost 50,000 apartments. Rents could only increase up to 6%, and similar to Orange County today, landlords at the time immediately sued.
According to the Miami Herald, apartment-building owners at the time depended mostly on fixed-income seniors moving to the beach to retire.
“It was very popular,” Bob Goodman, a council member in the early 1970s, told the Miami Herald. “There weren’t a lot of high-rises. Condos didn’t exist then. But the renters of the apartments were in favor of it.”
Prior city rent-control ordinances had been overturned, but 1974’s lasted until Florida legislators passed a law restricting pricing rules that local governments could impose — including on landlords and therefore rent — in direct response. A year later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the 1977 state legislation overturned the rent control bill for the city.
This state legislation functionally limiting local government’s ability to impose rent control, the same that still stands today, has one exception though — a “housing emergency.”
The exception says no measure “imposing controls on rents” can be adopted unless it’s found they are “necessary and proper to eliminate an existing housing emergency which is so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.” It states that the measure can only be for a year at a time — if passed by the public for a vote — and specifically exempts luxury apartments, defined as having average rent of $250 at the time.
This defining of luxury though may be the greatest hindrance in the law for passing rent control.
St. Petersburg’s City Council voted, in December 2021, to explore declaring the housing state of emergency necessary to pursue rent control and these other measures — per that Florida state statute requirements. In February, they declined to do it.
The main motivator was the legal opinion of the city’s attorneys that the statute’s exceptions would be difficult to fulfill and prove, and would make the city susceptible to lawsuits they’d be “extremely likely to lose,” with possible damages in the tens of millions of dollars.
“Frankly, you can look at it as poison pills, you know, not to be pejorative, but in the statute, it’ll be very difficult for us to prevail on an attempt to defend any ordinance that implemented what they call rent control, rent stabilization,” said City Attorney Joseph Patner, in City Council’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting.
As City Attorney Brad Tennant explained, due to the wording of the statute, the city must prove that the only way to address the emergency is some form of rent control, that rent control will eliminate the emergency, prove that there even is an emergency, and have findings to support those claims.
Further, Tennant continued, the city starts with the burden of proof, rather than with the lawsuit’s plaintiff as is the normal standard. That means, in a lawsuit, the city’s findings must hold up under strict scrutiny in court.
“We have to hit all those boxes, and if we don’t, we’ll lose,” said Patner.
Even proving that there is an emergency could prove difficult, as Patner explained that courts have conflicting points on defining an emergency, with most examples being war, and a specific court case stating that “inflationary spiral is not an emergency.”
The largest hindrance might not even be the findings, but the statute’s definition of luxury.
According to Tennant, they do not know how to interpret the statute’s limitation on luxury rentals with $250 average building rent in 1977 to modern standards. Calculating for inflation, that standard would consider any apartment over $1,150 per month to be a luxury apartment building, and therefore rent control could not apply.
To Council Chairperson Gina Driscoll, landlords might just raise rent a dollar over by the time the rent control could actually come into effect since the council can’t freeze rent in between.
“So we could actually see this backfire this year, and put us in an even worse position as far as the cost of things right now,” she continued. “Next year it would only apply to whatever is left, before we get sued.”
Herself a renter, Driscoll said she’d prefer to focus on immediate assistance, giving those possible tens of millions in damages to renters for the long-term, rather than to landlords in litigation.
“I use myself as an example because I can’t afford most of what’s out there right now, and it seems that the state has very cleverly put into place lots of triggers that actually make this a treacherous path to go down, if we go down it,” Driscoll said.
And St. Petersburg will not, as they voted 3-1 against suggesting to the entire City Council that the city has a housing emergency.
Orange County Pushes Forward
These exact fears of St. Petersburg is the basis of the lawsuit The Florida Apartment Association and the Florida Association of Realtors lodged against Orange County immediately after their ordinance putting rent control on the ballot passed.
“It is adverse and antagonistic to the public interest and to the interests of the Plaintiffs and their members to allow the Rent-Control Ordinance to be placed on the ballot or enforced by Orange County,” the associations said in their complaint, calling the ordinance “unlawful and invalid.”
The county’s proof of there being a housing emergency is within the ordinance, where they point out 2021’s rental vacancy rate being 5.2% — the lowest on record since 2000. They also highlight the asking-rent-per-unit in the county growing from $1,357 in 2020 to $1,697 in 2021 — the highest increase since 2006.
Lasting hours, the public comment in the Orange County Commissioners meeting that passed the ordinance saw supporters like struggling renters, parents and those who’ve relied on rent control in the past, and dissenters that consisted of realtors, small-time landlords, and an attorney representing the suing associations.
Speaking early on, Scott Glass, a partner at the law firm of Shutts and Bowen in Florida — on retainer by those associations and representing their interests in the lawsuit — held that the burden of proof of a “housing emergency” is on the county, and that there isn’t enough.
He pointed at the population increase the county presented in the ordinance, and said it doesn’t tell whether there is a housing deficit because of it. He also critiqued their eviction statistics and that they didn’t acknowledge the effects the federal moratorium on evictions might have had on them.
He claimed that none of the proof presented actually showed rent control as the “necessary and proper” solution either, and this is where many of the dissenters’ arguments went. Multiple people argued rent control would further harm the housing stock by repelling developers, “destroying” market values, and discouraging investment.
“I know for a fact that this measure will have a chilling effect on our housing market, and the economy as a whole,” said CEO of the Orlando Regional Realtor Association Cliff Long. He said, rather, the county should disperse federal rental funds “to assist the vulnerable, and work with the housing industry to rapidly increase inventory in Orange County so we can create a real and lasting solution to this problem.”
“It is my belief that these immense rent increases only benefit the landlords and investors trying to recoup their losses from the pandemic,” said Kristell Miles, who’s in support of the ordinance. Miles continued that she’s had a 30% increase in rent, and that rent control would give time to find a better, long-term solution.
Jessy Correa, a “professional, hardworking mom,” said her rent increased by $300 within the year, and pointed out that pay was not keeping pace to be able to afford them.
Dissenters vastly outnumbered supporters of the bill, with all having ties to real estate in some form. One small landlord, Andrea Schekolin, said if landlords can’t get a “decent return on our investment, we will have to turn to other sectors of the economy,” lamenting that these units would simply be withdrawn from the market, worsening the problem.
“Stock markets do not call at night complaining that the toilet is clogged,” she said.
County Commissioner Emily Bonilla, who voted in favor of the ordinance, later spoke in response to one speaker who asked the commissioners to not cause a hostile environment for housing.
“What is a hostile environment for housing right now is forcing people to live on couches, floors, in cars, tents, streets, under bridges and on benches. Landlords and developers have created a hostile environment for housing and they call it ‘Renting the American dream,’” she said.
The ordinance passed 4 to 3.
“I don’t know what a rent control would do because there’s still going to be people, regardless, who are going to struggle to pay their rent,” said Mayor Demings before the vote, and dissented, highlighting home-owners who also have the possibility of eviction and need help.
“Even if we decide to advance the rent stabilization ordinance to the ballot, it would be all for naught if we don’t do these things to keep people in their homes right now.”
Others Follow Suit
Other cities are still trying, or being pressured to, pass rent control measures.
Lake Worth Beach, lying between St. Petersburg’s fear of a detrimental lawsuit and Orange County’s ballot measure, has declared a state of housing emergency already. Now, they must develop proof to support their decision before they can pass a ballot initiative onto the people.
The council meeting where they discussed the issue was a similar scene to Orange County: it lasted hours, saw struggling renters, parents, and those who’ve relied on rent control in the past.
One speaker expressed that she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to keep a roof over her children’s head, as she’s a mother of three, pregnant, on food stamps, and rent went up $300 in one month. Another speaker said his rent went up $750 as his landlord sold his rented home to another, and now his dog won’t be allowed there.
Unlike Orange County, no one spoke against possible rent control.
“Our state just does not care about us. Tallahassee is not going to do what needs to be done to protect renters, and our community,” said Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz. He described the state of emergency as “stemming the bleed,” not a proper solution, but it does give time. He believes the rising rents are not just inflation, but “people taking advantage.”
According to FIU’s 2021 Palm Beach County Affordable Housing Needs Assessment, 65.5% of Lake Worth Beach renters are cost-burdened, paying over 30% of their income toward rent — one of the highest rates in Palm Beach County.
Zumper’s National Rent Report shows St. Petersburg in the top 30 cities for rent costs at $1,570, with a year over year increase of 12%. Orlando just beats it out at $1,700 and a 16% year over year increase, with Tampa at $1,800 and a 34% year over year increase.
Income is also not matching these rent increases.
The livable wage for the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area, according to MIT’s livable wage calculator is $17.17. This supports one person, no children, and affording a studio apartment, with the bare minimum for other expenses like food and clothes.
St. Petersburg may have declined pursuing rent control, but protests continued into August pushing them to put it on the ballot. In February in Tampa, after the city similarly declined to put the city in a housing state of emergency, protesters continued to fill the council chambers demanding it be put to the ballot.
Whether rent control is a solution or not, many supporters and council members pointed out that it is at least a stop-gap.
“This is not a long-term solution,” said Miles at Orange County’s public comment, who had a 30% increase in rent in one month. “But this is something that will give not only the landlords, but the tenants the opportunity to come up with a solution that can help all of us in an amicable way.”