Orange County adopts Tenant’s Bill of Rights to enhance protections for local renters

The bill includes the right to a 60-day notice of lease termination and of rent increases above 5%

As Orange County rents continue to price out working families, amid a shortage in affordable housing stock, Orange County commissioners on Tuesday voted to adopt a Tenant's Bill of Rights ordinance that's intended to enhance protections for local renters.

The ordinance, first proposed last year, codifies rights for Orange County tenants that include the right to a 60-day notice of lease termination and rent increases above 5%; the right to reasonable notice prior to a landlord’s entry; the right to maintenance of the rental unit in line with building, housing and health codes; the right to the return of a security deposit or written notice of a damage claim; the right to a list of all tenant fees prior to move-in;  the right to reasonable accommodations and modifications for people with disabilities; the right to raise defenses to an eviction; a prohibition on retaliation by a landlord for seeking tenant services; and it will require that landlords provide tenants with a notice of their rights before their lease term begins.

It does not modify leases, or help provide legal advice.

As Orlando Weekly previously reported, the new local law also prohibits landlords, realtors and property owners from discriminating against renters based on lawful sources of income, which include but are not limited to housing vouchers or other forms of housing subsidy; as well as preventing discrimination against those who are perceived or understood to be victims of domestic abuse, dating violence or stalking.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported that some landlords avoid renting to Section 8 aid recipients in particular because they perceive them to be "undesirable tenants." Staff in Orange County's housing division told Orlando Weekly earlier this month that there's a lot of stigma surrounding Section 8 (more formally known as the Housing Choice Voucher program), which serves as the nation's largest federal rental assistance program for low-income individuals and families.

This can even further reduce opportunities for safe, quality, affordable housing for voucher recipients, many of whom are women, workers making minimum wage and people of color.

The new ordinance, therefore, expands existing protections under fair housing laws, which already prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, disability status and familial status.

The ordinance adopted Tuesday is similar to local laws already approved in Tampa, Hillsborough County, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg, and other Florida municipalities — in no small part due to the organizing efforts of local tenants facing housing issues, as well as groups like Florida Rising, tenant unions, and locally, organizations such as Central Florida Jobs for Justice, Hablamos Español and the union Unite Here.

The board of county commissioners on Tuesday also approved staff for a new Office of Tenant Services — recently allocated $835,000 in this fiscal year’s budget — to enforce the Tenant’s Bill of Rights and to provide other services, such as conducting trainings and outreach for tenants and landlords, publishing and sharing educational materials regarding tenants' rights, and working to secure grants to support tenant services.

“We think this is such a necessary department that will help tenants and landlords have a place to go to address any concerns or issues,” said Cynthia Laurent, a housing justice organizer with Florida Rising, a nonprofit group that's advocated for housing policies across Florida through their Justice on Every Block campaign.

But Florida Rising and other local housing advocates who pushed for this ordinance also hope that Orange County can go further — for instance, by developing a landlord registry that would help hold bad landlords accountable for violations of tenants' rights by making that information accessible to the public.

“We think it would be crucial that Florida Rising and community organizations continue to work with the Board of County Commissioners in developing a more robust enforcement mechanism through what is a landlord registry," Laurent added.

County Commissioner Michael Scott,  along with others on the dais, also agreed that more can be done. "This is a step in the right direction, but I just want the board to know that, from my perspective, there should be several more steps," said Scott.

One concern he had, for instance, was that wealthier landlords could still violate the new law and just accept the penalty that comes with doing so, when and if that case comes before the county staff (or the Legal Aid Society, or other agencies tenants are referred to) who will be investigating complaints.

Under the ordinance, a violation of the new Tenant's Bill of Rights is punishable by a noncriminal civil citation.

"I mean, we can't plan for everything," said Scott, who added, "There's a lot more work to do. Because like, I can just see for those that have the resources to be able to say, 'OK, I'll take the code enforcement violation, but I'm still going to get you out.'"

County commissioner Emily Bonilla floated the idea (later withdrawn) of vetting staff selected for the Office of Tenant Services, to specifically seek those with tenant advocacy experience, and to ensure they've never served as a paid or unpaid lobbyist or advocate for real estate agents, landlords or developers.

That would include, say, local affiliates of the Florida Apartment Association or the Florida Realtors, which not only sued the county to block Orange County's rent stabilization ordinance from taking effect, but have also been tracking ordinances like this one and showing up to city and county meetings across Florida to block their passage or water them down, arguing they would be burdensome for small landlords.

The idea from Bonilla, a former landlord herself, was quickly shot down by her colleagues. Commissioner Nicole Wilson worried that could be discriminatory. Mayor Jerry Demings called the idea "inappropriate."

"The goal is to come up with some solutions, and the solutions are going to require the cooperation of landlords outside of the legal processes," said Demings. "I believe that that is inappropriately putting our feet on the scales of justice."

The ordinance, considered a victory by local housing advocates, will take effect March 1, 2023. The mayor and commissioners suggested that staff come back with an update on the operations of the Office of Tenant Services (challenges they're hearing from tenants, enforcement of the new Tenant's Bill of Rights) in six months, in addition to an annual report to share with the board that demonstrates the issues tenants are facing and how the office is helping to solve tenant issues with goals, objectives and action steps.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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