Legislative Session Preview: Vicki Lopez prioritizes housing reforms, first responder support, stopping predators
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 1/5/23-Rep. Vicki L. Lopez, R-Miami, during the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, Thursday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

She has an ambitious roster of policy proposals for her first term in the Florida House.

For her first Florida House term, Republican Miami Rep. Vicki Lopez’s legislative agenda has a little bit of everything, from helping first responders and addressing condominium oversight to cracking down on predatory business practices and human trafficking.

That’s due not to a lack of focus, but a broad range of interests.

“I’m excited about resilience. I’m excited about first responder mental health, affordable housing and condo safety,” she said. “It runs the gamut, but they’re all good priorities.”

Atop Lopez’s list of legislative priorities is a yet-to-be-filed measure to amend a new law governing condominium oversight in Florida. Lopez’s bill, which she expects to finalize in the next two weeks, is a companion to legislation (SB 154) Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley is running in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

The bill would revise a law passed during a Special Session in May to shore up condo inspection requirements after the June 2021 collapse of the Champlain Tower South building in Surfside.

The law requires inspections of inland buildings occupied for 30 years. For structures within three miles of the coast, inspections would have to occur within 25 years of construction. Mandatory inspections would then take place every 10 years after.

Bradley’s bill and the one Lopez is filing would set the state requirement for inspection at 30 years everywhere, but it would allow local governments to require inspections after 25 years based on “local circumstances, including environmental conditions such as the proximity to salt water.”

The bill would also enable counties and municipalities to extend inspection deadlines for buildings whose owners entered contracts with architects or engineers and needed more time.

Further, condo associations would be allowed to forgo some costs related to their structural integrity reserve — a funding pool to be set aside for repairs — if experts “recommend that reserves do not need to be maintained for any item for which an estimate of useful life and an estimate of replacement cost or deferred maintenance expense cannot be determined.”

The new bill is needed, Lopez said, to fine-tune some aspects of the much-needed law members of the Legislature enacted last year.

“These very large, systemic pieces of legislation — when you put them into practice, there’s always something that needs fixing, so the intent of this legislation was to ensure that buildings would be safer and that we would never again see a Surfside situation, which was a terrible tragedy,” she said.

“We haven’t yet finalized the bill in the House, but there’s some parts that concur with what the Senate is doing. I’m excited to lead that work, because it’s so important to my district, and I know it’s important across the state because other urban areas have quite a few condominiums, so it will impact many parts of the state.”

Going “hand-in-hand with that bill,” Lopez said, is another measure she’s sponsoring (HB 627) on affordable housing with Coral Gables Republican Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera.

A comparable Senate version of the bill by Miami Sen. Alexis Calatayud is now on its way to the Senate floor.

Dubbed the “Live Local Act,” the bill aims to significantly increase Florida’s affordable housing inventory by, among other things, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to state programs targeting affordable housing solutions and providing tax incentives to residential developers and landlords who set aside portions of their properties at affordable rates.

Notably, the bill would also remove the ability of local governments to impose rent controls — a practice currently only allowable under declared states of emergency.

“A lot of people moved from New York and other states and came to the urban areas (of Florida) because they were accustomed to living in urban areas, and that’s what drove up the rents almost overnight in my area,” Lopez said. “I’m looking forward to helping lead the work of affordable housing, and … I think this will probably be the largest piece of legislation we see this year.”

On a different track, Lopez is backing a bill (HB 169) to better care for Florida’s first responders and corrections officers who experience a traumatic event.

Under the measure, police, firefighters, prison guards and other public servants who work on the front lines and risk exposure to trauma would be eligible for up to 12 sessions of licensed therapy, paid for by their employers, without having to take time off from work to seek the help.

A companion bill Miami Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez is carrying (SB 314) is already progressing through the Senate.

More than 6.6% of first responders have attempted suicide, according to the Journal of Emergency Medicine — 10 times the national average. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

The problem is so pressing an issue that Florida has a dedicated task force dedicated solely to deterring first responders from taking their own lives. But more needs to be done, said Lopez, who heard of three firefighters committing suicide last month alone.

“I really believe if they had any kind of crisis intervention that we could have prevented that tragedy,” she said. “The aftermath is what’s killing them.”

Lopez said HB 169 would help to keep first responders and corrections personnel from falling fully into post-traumatic stress disorder, being removed from duty and then having to use their worker’s compensation while seeking aid. Those she’s spoken with in the field are “very supportive.”

“They see a lot of death and despair in their jobs,” she said. “What’s important is that if they experience a traumatic event, as it’s defined in statute, that we get them the help they need immediately so they can continue to work and flourish.”

Lopez highlighted two bills she is backing to quell the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people. The first (HB 615) would give local governments and the Florida Department of Health more tools to shut down illicit massage parlors, which can be hotbeds for human trafficking.

“It came to my attention that we have establishments where there’s a lot of sexual misconduct and activity taking place — even in areas you wouldn’t think, like Collier and Charlotte counties. I have a long list of them,” said Lopez, who has worked for years on human trafficking issues with the Junior Leagues of Florida.

Republican Sen. Jonathan Martin is carrying a comparable version (SB 1338) of the measure.

“I’m excited if I can do anything to prevent and stop the flow of human trafficking through any kind of establishment,” Lopez continued. “I’ve met with a lot of what I call good actors in the business and with licensed massage therapists, and they are excited to help me shut down these places because it gives the good people a very bad name.”

A longtime champion for criminal justice reform, Lopez is addressing a similar issue in prisons through HB 929, which would close a loophole of sorts regarding sex with inmates.

Under current state law, it is a third-degree felony for any employee of a public or private correctional facility to engage in sexual activity with an inmate or offender under department supervision. That prohibition does not extend to volunteers or employees of contractors and subcontractors working at jails, prisons and detention facilities. This would fix that oversight.

“It’s a huge issue for people to take advantage of inmates,” she said. “People need to be safe when they are in a correctional setting.”

Lopez also hopes to prevent an entirely different kind of advantage-taking through a bill (HB 617) she and Busatta Cabrera filed to deal with the “predatory practices” of some private parking facility owners.

Republican Sen. Joe Gruters is backing an identical measure (SB 694) in the Senate.

The bill would require private parking lot operators to post clear and ample signage informing customers that they are not a public parking facility. The signage would also have to display parking rates, fine and penalty rates for violations, and how to contact management.

“My bill doesn’t preempt them from charging whatever rate they want. If you want to charge $1,000 an hour, you can do that, but you’re going to certainly put a sign there saying so,” she said. “It’s really a consumer protection bill. It allows the consumer to have all the information they need prior to entering the lot, and then whatever decision they make based on that information is up to them.”

Lastly, Lopez and fellow freshman Republican Rep. Fabían Basabe have teamed up on legislation (HB 827) that would clear more state and federal funds to local governments undertaking septic-to-sewer conversions.

Across Florida and particularly in Miami-Dade County, which abuts Biscayne Bay, runoff from malfunctioning septic tanks is contributing to declines in the health of major bodies of water. It leads to algal blooms and mass marine life die-offs, including an August 2020 event that killed 27,000-plus fish in Biscayne Bay.

The bill would authorize the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to provide grants to counties and municipalities trying to reduce their number of septic tanks, which are malfunctioning at higher rates as South Florida’s water table rises.

Rodriguez is sponsoring a similar bill (SB 458) in the Senate.

“My district has an enormous amount of water. It borders water from the top of Northeast 29th Avenue all the way down to Southwest 27th Avenue,” Lopez said. “This will go a long way toward protecting that water in Biscayne Bay.”

A former Lee County Commissioner, Lopez’s successful campaign for the seat representing House District 113 in November marked her first return to public office in decades.

HD 113 covers a central portion of Miami-Dade County, spanning all of Key Biscayne and parts of Coral Gables and Miami, including Virginia Key and PortMiami, one of the county’s two top economic engines.

The 2023 Legislative Session runs March 7 to May 5.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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