After securing final approval in January, Orange County’s new Tenant’s Bill of Rights ordinance, aimed at enhancing protections for local renters in the county, officially went into effect Wednesday.
A new Office of Tenant Services, established by county leaders to help enforce that ordinance and another new ordinance concerning rental notices, also opened Wednesday.
At the Orange County administrative building in downtown Orlando, where the new office is housed, Mayor Jerry Demings celebrated its opening as part of an official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“This is a historic day for our county,” said Demings, surrounded by county commissioners and staffers who will be managing the day-to-day operations of the new office. “Our staff has really worked tirelessly,” Demings added.
As locals are still grappling with astronomical rent increases and displacement from last year’s hurricanes, a rent stabilization effort approved last year by 59% of Orange County voters was blocked from going into effect by the state. County leaders say this office’s new opening couldn’t come at a better time.
“This took a lot of work from the county, and we're gonna see what they're capable of doing,” said county commissioner Mayra Uribe. “I think the biggest component is going to be the outreach.”
What to know
The Office of Tenant Services, staffed with four employees, will serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for local tenants and landlords to get information about tenants’ rights in Orange County, as well as receive referral services.
The office, operating on a $835,000 budget this fiscal year, will also help enforce a new 60-day rental notice requirement and the county’s new Tenant’s Bill of Rights law.
County commissioners unanimously passed a measure last July requiring landlords to provide a 60-day written notice for rent increases of more than 5%. That measure also provides protections for residents who pay rent on a quarterly or monthly basis.
The Tenant’s Bill of Rights ordinance, adopted unanimously in January, also offers added protections for renters. That measure, covering unincorporated Orange County, gives tenants the right to reasonable notice prior to a landlord’s entry; the right to the maintenance of a rental unit in line with building, housing and health codes; and the right to the return of a security deposit or written notice of a damage claim.
That ordinance, effective today, also prohibits landlords, realtors and property owners from discriminating against renters based on a perceived or disclosed history of domestic abuse, dating violence or stalking, as well as their source of income, provided it’s lawful.
That includes, but is not limited to renters who receive some form of housing voucher (many of whom are people of color, veterans, and/or people with disabilities), alimony, social security benefits or another form of housing subsidy, who are at a greater risk of facing discrimination from landlords.
This ordinance in Orange County expands existing protections under fair housing laws that already prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, disability status and familial status.
As of September, over a dozen states have statutes on the books that prohibit source of income discrimination, as do over 50 local municipalities nationwide. In Florida, that includes local governments in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, Daytona Beach and others.
The ordinance also requires that landlords provide tenants with a Notice of Tenant Rights prior to the beginning of their lease term. Failing to do so, or committing some other violation of the ordinance, could result in a fine of $500 for each offense, although the ordinance does allow time for landlords to “cure” or resolve the issue.
Bridging the gap
But the Office of Tenant Services is intended to serve as a resource for Orange County tenants and landlords alike. “Whether they are tenants or landlords, we are bringing both sides together,” Demings said on Wednesday.
According to Demings, the office has already received 30 phone calls and emails, presumably for assistance or to report potential violations of the county’s new tenant protections. But they expect to receive more, especially once more information about the office is shared with the public.
Amy Michaels, the administrator of the Office of Tenant Services, told Orlando Weekly they’ve already reached out to the Apartment Association, for instance, to help ensure landlords have the information they need to remain in compliance with the new tenant protections.
Office staff are also planning to conduct additional forms of outreach, by way of community events and informational panels. “The goal of this office is to bridge the gap between tenants and landlords,” said Michaels. “We want this Office of Tenant Services to be a trusted resource within our community.”
The office will also conduct trainings, publish and share educational materials regarding tenants' rights, provide case management services, work to secure grants to support tenant services and follow up with tenants and landlords who contact them.
To help assist residents who are non-native English speakers, the office has hired a staff member who’s fluent in Spanish, a Portuguese-speaking staff member and a staff member who’s fluent in Kreyol. But they’re hoping to make this resource as accessible as possible.
“Any person who calls our office and it's not one of these languages, we will find translation for them,” said Michaels.
What the office does not do
Both Demings and Michaels emphasized, however, that there are certain things the office will not be able to assist tenants with.
The Office of Tenant Services does not offer monetary assistance, including emergency rental assistance, nor can their staff offer legal advice. Staff can, however, refer tenants to the Legal Aid Society for legal help, thanks to a contract the county has with the legal nonprofit.
Tenants who call, email or visit with concerns the new office staff can’t help with directly may also be referred to another, more appropriate agency, such as code enforcement as applicable.
Michaels confirmed to Orlando Weekly that all services provided directly through the office are cost-free.
Because the county wants to identify areas of particular need, complaints made about potential violations of local tenant protections cannot be made anonymously.
That’s because the county wants to collect information from complaints that come in — for instance, demographic information, the person’s household income information — to help inform the assistance they provide.
A six-month update on the progress of the Office of Tenant Services, as well as the enforcement of the two new tenants’ rights laws, will be provided to county commissioners in about six months’ time.
How will the new tenants' rights laws be enforced?
Great question. Generally what this process will look like is:1. A tenant files a complaint (via email, or by calling the office's new tenant hotline, shared below)
2. The Office of Tenant Services will conduct a complaint investigation, or refer the complainant to a relevant agency for assistance, as applicable
3. The office will put together documentation of the violation
4. As applicable, landlords/property managers will be given notice of the violation (i.e. a warning), and time to "cure" or resolve the issue
5. If that doesn't occur, a civil citation may then be issued
What does that mean?
According to the county, a violation of the Orange County Code of Ordinances is subject to a fine of $500 for the first offense, and for any subsequent offenses.
Where can I learn more?
You can learn more about the Office of Tenant Services online at ocfl.net/tenantservices. You can also contact the office by:
Phone: 407-836-RENT or 407-836-7368
Email: [email protected]
The office will be open Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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