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Friday, January 28, 2022

A nationwide housing crisis hits locally

“Housing is a human right”

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The state of affordable housing in Alachua County continues to deteriorate. Tenants across the board are being crushed by rising rent prices. 

Residents of one Gainesville low-income apartment complex received blanket notices to vacate their homes this July. Graduate students at UF are losing 40% of their affordable housing on campus. The Alachua County Labor Coalition recently protested discrimination by the Collier Companies against tenants attempting to pay rent with housing vouchers or Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds.

We are in an affordable housing crisis.

Even with COVID-19 rental assistance and anti-discrimination laws, not enough is being done to keep our communities housed. The force of the blow is felt most bluntly by low-income, disabled, veteran and Black and Brown residents and students — historically and currently marginalized folks.

Who do we blame? As with any crisis, it’s both simple and complicated.

We blame corporate landlords. We blame sprawling firms that have transformed the home into an asset and have taken the majority of the rental housing stock captive.

Corporate housing companies like Collier, Trimark, Landmark, etc., don’t care about a tenant’s quality of life. They just want maximized returns on their investments. Collier, for example, has filed 25% of the county’s eviction cases since the end of the federal eviction moratorium and has served non-renewals to low-income tenants receiving housing assistance.

High finance has destroyed housing before. During the 2000s subprime mortgage bubble, high finance firms extended high-risk mortgages to marginalized folks, seeking returns on high interest rates. Profit-hungry speculation led to widespread mortgage defaults, foreclosures and homelessness, culminating in the Great Recession.

Corporate landlords see no reason to be a good community member. In theory, we can turn to the law for protection, but in practice, it’s not enough.

We blame our government. We blame a legal system that lacks affordable housing and adequate tenants rights protections as well as the teeth to proactively enforce the protections that do exist. We also blame our elected officials for not doing enough to combat these issues.

In Gainesville, while Housing Ordinance #190814 protects against discrimination based on source of income, we’ve yet to see the protection enforced. Collier, for example, still circumvents accepting housing vouchers because of their internal policy to “not sign third-party paperwork.” The City has done nothing to respond broadly to this blatant discrimination.

Tenant protections are mostly reactive, not proactive. When tenants get served lease non-renewals, or when they have eviction cases filed against them, the burden rests on the tenant to prove unlawful landlord behavior. In court, landlords have the advantage: While landlords can pay up for lawyers, tenants usually represent themselves because counsel is unaffordable.

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As well, Gainesville and Alachua County have not mandated legal requirements for inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning, in general, provides for a certain amount of housing in each new development that’s affordable to residents with an income below the area median. A critical problem in Gainesville and across the country is not the lack of housing but the lack of affordable housing.

So what can we do to get out of this crisis? We have to assert our rights to housing, both for ourselves and for our communities.

We can learn and use our rights. The City recently mandated that landlords distribute a brochure describing tenants rights to each renter. We need to teach ourselves both what we can assert and the channels we can assert them through. On campus, Student Legal Services provides free legal representation for landlord and tenant cases. Off campus, Three Rivers Legal Services provides similar services for eligible community members.

But we also need to play offense.

We can organize for tenant power. Whether we’re here for a short time or a long time, students and marginalized neighbors can organize to grow power within our communities.

Even if we don’t own, we can build for community control of our housing. We can build alternatives to eviction like Pinellas County’s eviction diversion program, which mediates tenant-landlord relationships outside of court. We can organize to mandate legal representation for low-income tenants in eviction cases like the state of Washington. We can organize to create inclusionary zoning ordinances while preserving Black neighborhoods. We can organize unions to protect our rights like tenants in St. Petersburg and Miami. We can invest in community ownership models to facilitate low-income tenants owning their own homes.

There’s a bullhorn waiting for us to speak into it, we just have to know our words. In the end, we have to assert: Housing is a human right.

Renz Torres is an Alachua County Labor Coalition Coordinator.

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