Tampa City Council asks for tenant advocacy office, more renter protections after emotional outcry from residents

The emotional input from the community had an affect on council, which unanimously called for more renter protections.

click to enlarge Robin Lockett speaks to council about the rental crisis as Arlene Washington, weeps in front of council chamber doors. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
Robin Lockett speaks to council about the rental crisis as Arlene Washington, weeps in front of council chamber doors.
Today Tampa City Council asked staff to look into creating a tenant advocacy office and a landlord registry, after more than 20 residents made emotional pleas for the city to address the uncontrolled rental crisis.

The community outcry had an effect on council members who unanimously passed a motion to have city staff return on June 16 to report on establishing a "Tenant Advocacy Office." The advocacy office would serve tenants who have legal concerns about their lease and their landlords.

An amendment was also added to explore the possibility of a city registry that would keep track of landlord and tenant interactions, potentially making it easier for tenants to file complaints against landlords.
Before council's decision, emotion took over the room as renters shared their struggles from the dais.

Arlene Washington, a disabled elderly Black woman, detailed to council the unaffordable cost of living in the city, including where she lives at Madison Highland Senior Apartments in downtown Tampa.

"We have people there that are moving out this month because they can't afford to pay the rent anymore," Washington said, getting choked up at the podium. "And it's wrong, it hurts my heart to know how you treat seniors."

Washington added that many seniors she knows now have to move to places that they don't want to live—places that the owners run like slumlords.

"It's a shame and you guys ought to be ashamed for not trying to help us to live where we think it's nice to live," Washington said. "We don't eat right, we don't get our medicine, right, we don't sleep right. And it's wrong."

Robin Lockett of the activist group Florida Rising supported Washington and other speakers' statements. She asked everyone who spoke before her to stand and said, "United we stand, divided we fall." In front of the doors of the city hall chambers, Washington wept.

"I've always said that you have to make a decision as to whether you're going to be for the developers and make profit, or be for the people," Lockett said. "Because it's the people who vote for you, not the corporations."

As council chair Joe Citro asked if there was more public comment, Tampa resident Tavaris Mitchell—frustrated after hearing Washington and other Black senior's struggles—sounded off.

He said he was going to, "bring the whole streets to that apartment complex" Washington mentioned. Citro asked if he would like to speak at the podium, to which he declined. Citro then said "thank you very much sir" several times, speaking over Mitchell.

"Fuck you," Mitchell shouted, drawing gasps from the other attendees.
click to enlarge Tavaris Mitchell shouts at city council. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
Tavaris Mitchell shouts at city council.
Citro told him to have a good day and called for a three-minute recess after the emotional outburst. The first thing Citro did during the recess was walk out into the hallway and for a chat with developer consultant Stephen Michelini, who was part of a lawsuit that forced former councilman John Dingfelder out of office over violation of public records laws.

After Citro noticed this reporter taking pictures of them talking, he turned away from Michelini, approached and asked, "Did you get that?! Did you get that?!" Citro then made peace signs at the camera after this reporter said "yes" and continued to take pictures of the council chair.

Citro has not responded to a follow-up request for comment on what he and Michelini were discussing after the emotional pleas from renters.

After the recess, cooler heads prevailed when  Mitchell returned to council, apologized for the outburst at the podium, and explained that tenants need more help with navigating rental laws and leases.

All of the council members were clearly disturbed by the input they received from the residents and members of the tenant activist group People's Council Tampa. They called for action.
click to enlarge People who spoke about the rental crisis in Tampa stand up in council chambers. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
People who spoke about the rental crisis in Tampa stand up in council chambers.
Nicole B. Travis, Tampa's Administrator of Development and Economic Opportunity, gave a presentation on the housing crisis to council.

"Thank you so much for this presentation, but there's one really glaring thing I noticed about it," Hurtak said. "It's really [about] helping homeowners and I think that's fabulous. I'm glad the city is focused on that, we need to help people fix up their homes. But right now we're hearing that over half of the citizens of Tampa are renters. So we need to focus on what we can do for them."

Hurtak asked Travis a series of questions, including how to get development projects in Tampa to include more affordable housing.

"Right now your land development code does not require that, so you are the legislative body and are responsible for the land development code more than anything," Travis said. "And so we're proposing to bring to you in June some options on how we can do that."

Hurtak mentioned that allocating more Rental and Move-in Assistance Program (RMAP) funds from the city could help tenants whose rents have increased. She suggested $34 million more for the program.

All of the other council members weighed in with their thoughts, agreeing with many of the residents' concerns.

Councilman Bill Carlson decried "biking while Black" and "renting while Black"— programs Mayor Jane Castor oversaw and defended. Black residents at past council meetings have repeatedly said those programs helped gentrify Tampa. Carlson also called out former Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration for tearing down affordable public housing.

Councilman Viera said that the rent crisis is, "an attack on the working class and the middle class" and said, "people are just looking to make the pain more manageable, and we shouldn't be there."
Orlando Gudes said that he still believes in rent stabilization as an option.

"People can have control of their property," Gudes said. "But I do believe in rent stabilization, because you got to step in at some point."

Councilman Guido Maniscalco motioned for staff to come back on exploring a tenant advocacy office, which would represent renters who can't afford traditional legal representation and help with other tenant needs such as understanding leases.

Hurtak added an amendment to Maniscalco's  motion, saying that Tampa should explore establishing a landlord registry, that keeps track of tenant and landlord interactions. Council passed both measures unanimously.

"It helps," Hurtak said. " And if you're a good landlord, you have no problems."