Orange County voters may be asked on the November ballot to consider adopting rent controls for one year.
The Orange County Commission approved an ordinance to set a public hearing and final vote for Aug. 9 for a ballot measure seeking limited rent control in a county experiencing what the ordinance calls “a housing emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”
The commission’s split vote advances a proposal championed by Commissioner Emily Bonilla.
The proposal is still under draft, and final changes may come in August. The wording crafted since a June workshop had removed many of the provisions Bonilla and other supporters wanted. As currently drafted, it exempts a long list of types of rental dwellings, and a rent increase cap would be tied to the federal consumer price index, with lots of caveats, instead of being a straight 5% cap.
The measure would control rents at affected properties for only one year, starting Nov. 21.
Early in the proceedings, Bonilla drew a harsh rebuke from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for her treatment of staff developing the ordinance — he called her hostile. And then she drew supporting votes from Demings and from Commissioners Nicole Wilson, Mayra Uribe and Maribel Gomez Cordero — with varying levels of enthusiasm for a measure that would do less than some of them hoped.
Commissioners Christine Moore and Victoria Siplin, who both have taken strong positions against rent controls, voted no.
Demings and the staff said the changes had to be made to bring the proposal in line with state laws, which preempt many of her desired effects, and to make it stronger against anticipated legal challenges.
While passionately calling for relief for renters, Bonilla expressed strong frustration about the draft product. At one point she complained the changes made “the ordinance basically useless.”
However, one provision initially contemplated for the rent control measure, requiring a 60-day notice on rent increases, arrived in a separate ordinance. The commission approved it unanimously. It will go into effect next month.
If the commission approves the “rent stabilization” measure next month, the proposal would join one already on the county’s General Election ballot asking voters whether they want to increase the sales tax by a penny to pay for transit and transportation improvements.
Several commissioners also vowed to develop a tenant bill of rights for the county, another provision that was contemplated for the ballot measure. A workshop on that is set for September.
And Demings assured the Commissioners he expected far more housing and rent initiatives, especially considering the proposed rent control would be for only one year. The 12-month cap would be in part to buy time for longer-term reforms.
“If we don’t change what we’re doing. One year from now this same thing is going to be happening. And I feel it’s going to be worse,” Uribe said.
All the action came in a county where there are an estimated 230,000 rental units. Occupancy levels run 95%. Rent increased an average of 25% in a year. A majority of tenant households qualify as “cost burdened.” The population has increased 25% in a decade. And the availability of affordable housing has long been described as a crisis.
The rent stabilization ordinance preamble calls it “a housing emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”
The day began with nearly three hours of public testimony. There were impassioned pro-rent control and pro-tenants rights statements from Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Democratic House candidates Rita Harris in House District 44, Shan Rose in House District 41 and Dominque Douglas in House District 38, Orange County mayoral candidate Kelly Semrad, renters, advocates, and clergy.
They painted a picture of a Central Florida rental housing market increasingly controlled by investors, who were pricing out low-income tenants, driving full-time, low-wage employees into homelessness, in a market where there are few if any other affordable housing options.
There also were stern concerns raised by landlords and their advocates against price controls.
Rachelle Hundley, president of the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando argued that property owners are getting hammered with 10-50% increases in property insurance, property taxes, maintenance and capital replacement costs, and wages. Rent control, they argued, would not only force them to cut services and quality, but it also would discourage desperately needed development of more housing stock.
After the public testimony, but before the commission’s discussions, Demings laid into Bonilla. He accused her of explicit hostility toward staff members, when she was recently briefed in private about the changes in the ordinance.
“I do not condone workplace violence. I do not condone creating situations where our staff, when they come to work, they would be disrespected, disregarded.” Demings said.
“That has to stop. Do not create a hostile work environment for our staff. Commissioner, you own that,” Demings said.
“Mayor, in my defense,” Bonilla attempted.
“There’s no defense for it,” Deming snapped. “An apology is what is necessary at this point, to those staffers.”
“I do not create a hostile environment,” Bonilla eventually responded. “I had one conversation. And it was after a long time of just keeping my mouth shut, dealing with emails berating the board because we didn’t agree with staff. And I felt disrespected as well.”