Some property owners are speaking out and even threatening a lawsuit over Gainesville’s new rental permit program, which they say is violating rights and driving up rents.
The pushback comes as the program nears its first anniversary next month. The city has continued to tweak the program, but critics say the changes are not enough to correct what they see as the program’s flaws.
Gainesville attorney Jeff Childers said landlords contacted him about the program and set up meetings. He now represents more than 70 property owners.
“It’s not government subsidized housing we’re talking about—these are private owners and private tenants,” Childers said in a phone interview. “In effect, the city is trying to make every single-family residence into government subsidized housing, except they’re not providing a subsidy.”
The Gainesville program began in October 2021. It included a renter’s bill of rights, enhanced anti-discrimination rules and an inspection by the city every four years. During the first four years, the program will work to get all qualifying landlords permitted.
The program applies to condominiums, co-ops, timeshares, quadruplexes, triplexes, duplexes, or single-family dwellings that are rented in whole or part. Apartment complexes aren’t included.
The city of Gainesville created the Rental Housing Subcommittee, chaired by Commissioner David Arreola, to handle the issue. The rental permit program came out of that subcommittee to replace the city’s previous licensing program.
The commission approved it after several meetings in 2020 with a start date in 2021.
“The standards that we are proposing are basic building code, and the energy efficiency standards are very small cost, high payout upgrades,” Commissioner Reina Saco said at the July 16, 2020, meeting.
The ordinance says its purpose is “to eliminate substandard residential rental units by creating a permit and inspection program that requires all regulated residential rental units within the city to meet minimum property maintenance and energy efficiency standards.”
She also addressed emails sent to the city that claimed the unit upgrades will increase because of the rental program.
“If there’s a home that will require thousands upon thousands of dollars of upgrades or renovations, that is not a home that should be on the rental market,” Saco said at the meeting.
For property maintenance, the city’s code sets out among others the following energy efficiency standards:
- Attic insulation of at least R-19 and then upgraded to R-30 by 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2026
- Attic access must be weather stripped and insulated to a minimum of R-30
- Toilets must use 3 gallons of water per flush or less and reduce down to 1.6 gallons a flush by 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2026
- Shower heads must have a flow rate of 2.5 gallons per minute or less
- HVAC systems must have maintenance performed at least once within the past 24 months
- Air filters must be regularly changed according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
“That is all in there now to help save money on utility bills for the people who are renting, which was a major concern when information was presented,” Pete Backhaus, code enforcement manager, said in a city of Gainesville video describing the program.
But landlords differ from the city’s perspective, saying rent and housing stock will suffer.
Elliot Larkin serves as managing director at Harmony Habitats Property Management, a Gainesville-based company that builds multifamily units and manages properties for other owners. Larkin said many landlords work on tight budgets, so requiring $1,000 in renovations means increasing rent. He said a tenant may save money on utilities after that, but if rent goes up by $100 or more per month, the increase may cancel out the savings.
Larkin also said there’s more than a single cookie-cutter type of renter. He said a renter of his moved because of the unit location and found another unit that cost less than $600 a month. Larkin said his former renter was ecstatic to move in. The unit hadn’t been updated since the first half of the 1900s, but for the renter, it was perfect.
“What this program is doing is taking away that subset of rentals, and so that tenant is no longer able to find a place in the city of Gainesville because that landlord is going to have to renovate his unit when they have the inspection,” Larkin said. “And obviously, the rent is going to go up significantly.”
Larkin acknowledged that some landlords fail to fix anything and allow illegal conditions, but he said laws already exist for those situations.
“I understand that a lot of tenants don’t know that system,” Larkin said. “So, then they created the renter’s rights, which is great. I’ll fully support that.”
The renter’s rights brochure explains what standards a person can expect from any landlord and how to exercise their rights.
On Sept. 1, the Gainesville City Commission voted to include the renter’s rights in the contract documents a landlord must provide tenants, showing the minimum standards. But Larkin said he disagrees with Gainesville’s minimum standards when a landlord can’t rent a duplex because it lacks a low flow shower head or a higher level of attic insulation.
“And I just don’t think that they have the perspective, both of the tenants that are going to be hurt by this and of the frustrations that is causing the landlords,” Larkin said.
Some landlords have opted out of the business altogether, Larkin added.
Initially, the city used a contractor for the inspections: CAP Government, Inc. but at a meeting in April, the commission voted to bring the inspections in-house and use city codes enforcement employees.
Andrew Persons, special adviser to the city manager, said at a Sept. 1 meeting that the city should be handling all inspections by October.
Despite repeated attempts, Persons could not be reached for an interview for this story.
CAP Government, Inc. used UF students as inspectors, and at the April meeting, some commenters said the inspections locked onto small details instead of true safety issues and questioned the training of the students.
Inspection reports reviewed by Mainstreet Daily News cited landlords for cracks in the ceiling and damaged cabinets, while others pointed out missing smoke detectors and incorrect electrical wiring.
During an Alachua County presentation in July, staff told the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) that the city has had issues with attic inspections, including reports of seals breaking.
“I’m hearing a lot of complaints about the city’s program,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said at the July meeting. “I want to make sure that we aren’t creating increased rents, or giving landlords a reason for increasing rents, when we have a rental crisis right now as far as housing goes.”
The BOCC went on to vote 4-1 to move forward with a similar inspection program, but it plans to hire county staff to handle the inspections from the start.
Even as the city works to amend its program, Childers argues it has underlying legal problems.
“If you’re just charging a group of citizens for a benefit to another group of citizens, that’s a tax, and it’s an illegal tax if you’re discriminating,” Childers said.
He said the program charges landlords for a perceived benefit to tenets and the environment through the energy efficiency standards. But he predicted rents will probably rise and some tenants might not want a low flow shower head—especially if they have to pay for it.
“If you’d started off asking the tenants if they were willing to pay for this stuff, they would have said no,” Childers said.
He called the program arbitrary and capricious and said it violates privacy by forcing landlords to allow city access to the renter’s space.
“If you’re gonna force people to improve their properties, there has to be a nexus between either a nuisance to be abated or a benefit to that property,” Childers said, suggesting the city provide a property tax abatement in the amount of money the landlord uses.
Childers said the group isn’t ready to disclose when any legal action may come.