St. Pete advances right to counsel for tenants facing eviction

The committee voted 3-1 to bring a resolution to city council for approval.

click to enlarge Richie Floyd - Photo by Dave Decker
Photo by Dave Decker
Richie Floyd
Last Thursday, St. Pete City Council’s Youth and Family Services (YFS) committee voted 3-1 to draft a resolution recommending that the administration create a citywide right to counsel for tenants facing eviction.

The vote comes more than a year after councilmember and YFS vice-chair Richie Floyd first brought up the issue.

“When we’re saying it’s a right to counsel…it’s that the city’s gonna make sure there’s legal counsel for everyone facing this,” Floyd said. “It’s saying that someone will be there to answer your questions, review your case, and give you advice.”

The resolution will go to the full council next, and if approved will ask the administration to move forward with a citywide right to counsel program that provides pro bono services for eviction prevention.

The resolution will also say that the city council supports the administration expanding the program and looking into paying funds into a court registry to aid with eviction prevention.

“Sometimes attorneys do help people stay in their homes,” Foster said. “But minimally, and we say this during COVID, it’s that negotiating the time to leave their home that made a real difference for a lot of families.”

A “pilot” version of the program is approved for $100,000 in South St. Pete using Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) funds to help fund eviction diversion.

“The Mayor is supportive of this idea and the administration is supportive,” Amy Foster, community and neighborhood affairs administrator, said at the meeting. “I do think we want to see what happens in the CRA and we may be able to bring back more information once that gets off the ground. But in general, we're supportive of this request for legal representation.”

According to city attorney Brad Tennant, Florida law and the city charter prevents city council from creating an ordinance in this instance. A resolution allows the council to make their desires known to Mayor Ken Welch and his administration with clear guidelines. Council will then vote to approve funding if and when the administration decides to move forward. Then legal aid can apply to get a contract with the city to provide those services. “We can’t just employ someone to do this, it’s not allowed in Florida,” Tennant said. “So in our circumstance, we have to have a third party representing that third party.”

Amid talks of the right to counsel, the city hired its first-ever community support specialist last year to connect residents facing eviction with resources. Beatriz Zafra started in the position last fall, and of the 821 evictions filed over a five-month period, 117 were diverted. On average, the past due amount was $3,159.

“We've talked to housing providers…this is something that they're actually interested in,” Floyd said. “Because it costs money to evict someone.”

A 2022 study of eviction and poverty by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that over 2 million American households face eviction each year. The study also found that homelessness was rare for tenants involved in housing courts. But evictions resulted in 3,600 adults staying in emergency shelters a year later after eviction. And 2,500 adults were still accessing homelessness services another year later.

Council member Ed Montanari cited concerns about the recent settlement the City of Tampa had to pay for its attempted ban on conversion therapy for minors. The city lost its case to the tune of $950,000 as a result of the state’s preemption laws. According to Tennant, because the city can’t directly represent citizens and a third party must be used, the city is likely protected from being successfully sued.

Montanari voted against the resolution and said it was “a bridge too far.”

SB 1586 passed the Senate last Friday (after its companion bill passed the house two days earlier), prohibiting any local tenant protections in favor of state regulations. So far, it doesn’t appear right to counsel would violate the new law.

“At this time, we do not believe that this would impact our ability to support legal services providers,” Tennant said.

If the city council and Welch’s administration approve the resolution, money (outside of the CRA) for the program will likely come from the general fund.

“I want to be clear here that we’re not interjecting into the tenant-landlord relationship here,” Floyd said. “We’re simply giving tenants a tool to use the laws that are on the books at the state level to the best of their ability.”

As of now, there are no income restrictions and all residents facing eviction would be able to access the citywide program.