On the Issues

Affordable Housing & Renters’ Rights

Central Florida is currently in the midst of one of the worst affordable housing crises in the United States. Housing prices have skyrocketed in recent decades while the development of low-priced housing has stagnated. The result is thousands of low-wage families struggling to find the money to live in the cities they call home. As Carlos often puts it, “Floridians can’t afford Florida,” and that’s unacceptable. That’s why he’s fought tirelessly in the legislature to fully fund the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, expand renter’s rights, and give cities the tools they need to enact local solutions. In 2020, his efforts paid off when the legislature fully funded the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust fund.

Funding Affordable Housing

Florida doesn’t need to go looking for revenue to fund affordable housing. The Sadowski Trust Fund is supposed to be a dedicated funding source from taxes on real estate transactions. It is intended to guarantee state spending on affordable housing, help low-income families get down-payments on loans, and incentivize developers to build housing people can actually afford. Unfortunately, lawmakers rarely leave the fund untouched. Instead they raid (or “sweep”) the money for unrelated causes, over Carlos’s repeated objections. The legislature’s 2020 decision to leave the Sadowski fund intact came after years of political pressure that Carlos helped create.

During the 2020 legislative session, Carlos introduced an amendment to divert $543 million in unnecessary corporate income tax refunds towards the affordable housing fund. Carlos considered this unacceptable and proposed an amendment that would instead use that $543 million to replenish the Sadowski fund.

Another possible source of affordable housing funds is the tourist development tax, also known as TDT. Although well-funded special interests and tourism executives oppose the use of TDT for affordable housing, Carlos disrupted the status quo and began calling for more flexibility on TDT spending. Historically, these resources have been almost exclusively used for tourism marketing and convention center construction. But Carlos believes it’s past time look for new ways to address Central Florida’s affordable housing crisis.

“We have to be more flexible in how tourist development tax money is spent,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. "Central Florida’s $75 billion tourism industry was built on the backs of tourism workers who need affordable housing and transportation infrastructure. There is a crisis on both of those fronts. Everything should be on the table to address these crises.”

Rent Stabilization and Local Solutions

While Carlos is pushing the state to do everything it can to fund affordable housing, he knows that it won’t be enough to solve the issue. The severity of Florida’s housing crises, especially Central Florida’s, will require the attention of every level of leadership. That’s why he has worked hard to put solutions back into the hands of local government. The most important of these solutions is rent control. In times of emergency, cities need the power to control rent and cap housing costs in order to protect their citizens. Yet the state currently bans them from doing this for effective periods of time. In 2019, Carlos co-sponsored HB 6053 to remove this preemption to return local control on the issue. Carlos has also co-sponsoring legislation that allows counties to collect taxes to finance their own affordable housing initiatives. These funds would work much like the Sadowski Fund does at the state level, with the added precision local governments can bring to their home counties.

Carlos has encouraged the work of local affordable housing taskforces as well. In 2019, he met with the Orange County Housing for All Taskforce to discuss solutions for his home district. The taskforce ended up providing a plan to encourage affordable housing development through new zoning laws, strategic development bonuses, and more.

Protecting Renters' Rights

Yet affordable housing development is only half the battle. Even when Floridians find a place they may be able to afford, their desperate need for housing leaves them at the power of their landlords. This often leads to predatory tactics that make the housing process even more difficult for renters. For example, some landlords in Central Florida have charged families over $100 just to apply for a unit and then refuse to refund application fees when units are unavailable. That’s why he proposed legislation and championed what’s been called the “Bill of Renter’s Rights.” This bill would level the playing field between renters and landlords while freeing Florida’s citizens to find the housing they need.

"State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, reintroduced a bill this year that would set up some protections for renters, including restricting the reasons for which landlords can evict tenants, preventing landlords from charging excessive application fees and requiring them to refund fees when no units are available. It would also require landlords to provide leases and eviction notices in tenants’ preferred language, give tenants three months of notice before raising rents more than 5% and prohibit landlords from turning away applicants because they receive federal housing vouchers."

One particularly dangerous situation would be a time of state emergency. Whether that’s a hurricane or COVID-19, Floridians have enough to worry about besides being kicked out of their homes for reasons beyond their control. That’s why Carlos made sure to include protections for such situations in his legislation; under the Bill of Renter’s Rights, times of emergency would trigger automatic eviction and foreclosure moratoriums.

Affordable Student Housing

Housing insecurity is a major issue for college students in East Orlando and across Florida as well. That’s why Carlos has championed affordable student housing as a top priority.

COVID-19 created new and frustrating housing challenges for students living or planning to live in off-campus housing. As university classes moved to online instruction and the pandemic turned campuses into ghost towns, many students vacated their apartments to stay at home safely with their parents. In April, Carlos began hearing from students and parents desperate for protection from corporate landlords who refused early lease terminations due to COVID-19 and threatened students to pay up. As always, Carlos stepped in to become their champion!

During this pandemic, corporate landlords at off-campus student housing properties have continued to engage in predatory practices to take advantage of students stuck in leases they no longer need. We will continue to urge Governor Desantis to take executive action to help these students and encourage landlords and property managers to be flexible with students who cannot pay due to COVID-19.