Orange County, act swiftly on rent assistance

It’s impossible to deny: Orange County’s rental housing market is in crisis. Last month, a hastily prepared county study found that from 2020 to 2021, the average rent for a vacant unit climbed from $1,357 a month to $1,697, a 25% year-over-year jump. We all know the increases didn’t stop there. Meanwhile, tenants who are already in housing say they’re being hit with monthly rent increases of hundreds of dollars — and with no corresponding increase in income, that can mean a sudden search for a dwelling that’s more affordable. It’s a near-impossible task in a housing market that’s close to 95% full.

It’s also impossible to catalog the cascade of consequences for Orange County renters, particularly the least affluent. Some families are being forced to move farther away from their workplaces — taking their children out of family schools and disrupting child care. Some young adults are deciding to move back to their parents’ homes — and some families are making rooms for grandparents. Renters are accepting accommodations that they might otherwise consider unsafe or inadequate.

The overall desperation is providing cover for some shady operators, and drawing investors who don’t care about the impact their manipulative tactics have on the residents who live and work here. Honest landlords must wrestle with the choice between keeping their rents close to market rate, or setting lower increases to help existing tenants. Meanwhile, the upheaval is already spilling over into Seminole, Lake, Volusia and Osceola counties, where migration from the Orlando area is often cited as one of the biggest market pressures forcing rents up.

Orange County residents are looking to their elected officials for help, and their distress demands an answer. There’s no easy solution, but local leaders must try.

Today, the Orange County Commission tackles Commissioner Emily Bonilla’s call for a rent-stabilization referendum that would cap rental increases at 5% or the annual increase in the consumer price index (in the fiscal year that just ended, 9.1%) whichever is greater, for a period of one year. Bonilla’s proposal includes plenty of exceptions, including some that could protect small landlords and property owners hit by higher-than-normal expenses. But it still faces a steep legal climb: Last month’s study stopped short of finding the kinds of emergency conditions that would warrant such a move, which could put the proposed ballot question in conflict with a 1977 state law governing rent control across Florida.

This is a tough call and commissioners are still receiving information. We see the appeal of Bonilla’s proposal: It’s transparent, easy to understand and comes with a short-term expiration date, limiting its impact on Central Florida’s housing market. But a surprising number of people are coming forward in opposition, and the commission must listen to them as well.

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No matter what they decide to do today, however, commissioners should take care to isolate this question from other potential amendments. If it’s ruled out of line, that will protect other measures that are also badly needed.

And there should be other measures. Mayor Jerry Demings has backed a bank of proposals that would include a tenant’s bill of rights — collecting existing protections into one easy-to-reference document, adding new ones, and putting landlord-tenant matters under the jurisdiction of a board that would have enforcement powers. These should not be seen as an alternative to Bonilla’s plan, but a supplement, and Orange County can look to other areas, such as Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties, that already have similar plans in place.

Some protections don’t need voter approval. Commissioner Nicole Wilson plans to push hard at today’s meeting for approval of a 60-day notice period of rent increases or lease termination. Commissioners should approve it, and look for other measures that can be quickly adopted.

The commission could also approve a budget amendment that increases funding to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which helps nearly 5,000 Orange County residents and should be assisting many more, and make sure it has the staff to process requests for assistance and renter complaints.

Finally, commissioners must acknowledge that Orange County’s crisis won’t expire until the supply increases to meet demand. That means getting serious about innovative strategies that have worked in other communities, including so-called “inclusive” zoning that encourages redevelopment and a focused effort to convert abandoned spaces — including retail and office space left vacant in the wake of COVID — into affordable living spaces. Seminole County is working on such a plan, focusing on the moribund Seminole Town Center mall.

Reading the consultant’s report, it’s hard to buy into the conclusion that Orange County’s housing crisis hasn’t yet risen to the level of an emergency. It certainly feels that way to every family who feels the cold clench of panic at their latest rent increase, or all the tenants who are told that they must find somewhere else to live. The commission should do as much as it can, as fast as it can — while pushing for long-term solutions that could provide better, more affordable housing for a long time to come.

The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick and El Sentinel Editor Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio. Contact us at [email protected]

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