TAMPA BAY, Fla. — This March is a busy one for renters trying to get by and state and local leaders rushing to provide them with rental relief.
“Rents are going up all across the country, but in places like South Florida, this is kind of the center of the universe, right now," Governor Ron DeSantis (R) Florida said.
DeSantis said in a press conference in Miami, Florida, last week, that $740 million in federal funds are available for Florida renters in need of emergency assistance. However, he warned, financial aid will not solve the housing crisis.
“In some of these local governments, you know they’ll talk about the price of rent going up but then they won’t let new construction happen the way they do," DeSantis said. "You have to increase the housing stock in the state of Florida.”
“As I ride around, I see projects that are going up right now and starting to have tenants," said Mayor Ken Welch of St. Petersburg, Florida.
When the newly-elected mayor took office in January, his first focus was tackling the rent burden in his city.
“I know that folks are really only a hospital stay or an accident away from being homeless," he said.
The former Pinellas County commissioner worked with his old colleagues, this month, to open up $18 million in the county's American Rescue Plan Fund for St. Pete renters.
“It’s really desperately needed," Welch said. "Not a week goes by where I don’t talk to someone who is on the brink.”
However, that reliance on aid is not sustainable.
“As rent goes up, more and more people are being squeezed," Nick Carey, member of The People's Council of St. Pete said.
Carey and other members of the group met with Welch, this month, to share their ideas for helping renters.
“We’re just hoping that with more investment in the community and investment in housing that we can both tackle kind of the short terms problem as well as build for the future," he said.
Welch insists long-term housing crisis needs to be solved through affordable housing. The City of St. Petersburg allocated $34.3 million to build affordable units.
“Those have built in an affordable element for 30 years and in some cases 99 years. It has to remain affordable so that folks aren’t spending more than 30% of their income for that rent.”
“If you build it they’ll come," Tampa City Council Chair Orlando Gudes said. "So, if we can help them build it, they’ll come.”
Gudes takes notes from across the bay. The City of Tampa made $5 million available in rental and move-in assistance, this month, but it was quickly spoken for with 963 renters applying for the aid.
“In a city of 400,000 people, that’s nothing. That’s really nothing," Gudes said.
Like Mayor Welch, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor set her focus on building affordable units. Castor set a goal of 10,000 affordable apartments by 2027. At the end of 2021, she announced the city hit 6,000 units, but inventory still lags behind the number of renters in need of affordable housing.
Gudes said the city needs to find a way to keep renters in their homes in the first place.
“We’re going to have to craft something," he said. "Something’s got to give."
His top solution is rent stabilization. The controversial form of rent control is outlawed by state statute, but possible by way of a housing emergency declaration and voter referendum.
Mayor Castor told reporters earlier this month that rent stabilization would hamstring development in Tampa.
"We can’t be afraid of the developers. The developers can be our friend, but we’ve got to compromise and work with them to see how we can get it done," Gudes said.
“The city council can’t be cowards," Bratton Young of the Tampa Tenants Union said. "The excuses that it would be too hard or that it would open up to some sort of legal trouble, but really if there’s a will there’s a way.”
Young said rent stabilization is on the minds of all Tampa renters, and it is the ultimate goal of tenants in his situation. But, in the immediate, he is forming Tampa's own people's council to work off the back of the tenants' bill of rights ordinance passed, last week, and further balance the scales between renter and landlord.
“It’s insane that it’s been allowed to progress to this point," Young said. “We’re committed to stay in this fight until we see some actual meaningful change.”