Realtors sue to have Orange County’s rent control measure tossed from ballot

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Realtors and apartment owners have sued to get Orange County’s rent control measure thrown off the November General Election ballot.

The suit, filed by the Florida Association of Realtors and the Florida Apartment Association, asks Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court in Orange county to declare that the rent control measure ordinance approved last week by the Orange County Commission is invalid because it failed to prove a housing emergency, as is required by state law for such measures.

The suit also asks the court to declare that the ballot language is “affirmatively misleading and fails to fairly inform voters of the chief purpose of the proposal in clear and unambiguous language.”

For either or both of those counts, the organizations want a judge to issue a permanent injunction that would prevent Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles from placing the measure on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot in Orange County.

If court proceedings drag out too long, then they want to have Cowles’ Office include notes with ballots instructing voters the question has been canceled, and then to not bother counting any votes that might be cast on the issue.

The lawsuit is a response to last week’s action by the Orange County Commission, which voted 4-3 to put a question before county voters on whether residents want a 12-month cap on rent increases.

The Commission is struggling to address the county’s affordable housing shortage and rapidly rising rents. Commissioner Emily Bonilla proposed the rent control measure — called a rent stabilization ordinance — as a way to stabilize the county’s housing situation for a year to give the county time to consider long-term strategies to expand affordable housing options.

“Right now, we need to stop the bleeding and in the next year take more aggressive actions than something that’s slow like this,” Bonilla said in pushing for the ordinance.

This all emerged in a county where there are an estimated 230,000 rental units. Occupancy levels run 95%. Rent increased an average of 25% in a year. A majority of tenant households qualify as “cost burdened.” The population has increased 25% in a decade.

State law allows a very narrow opening for counties to enact rent control measures. Among other things, counties must declare the presence of a “housing emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”

The Realtors and the Apartment Association argued that Orange County not only did not prove a housing authority that severe, they also ignored advice from the County Attorney and from a consultant about what that should entail before adopting the ordinance.

The lawsuit charges that the ordinance did not establish a baseline against which a “grave housing emergency” could be measured.

“But even if these findings could establish a ‘grave housing emergency,’ the Ordinance contains no findings demonstrating a ‘serious menace to the general public,'” the lawsuit charges.

“The Rent-Control Ordinance also ignores relevant evidence tending to refute the significance of its findings. For example, the Ordinance focuses on a ‘70.1% increase’ in eviction rates for the first half of 2022 as compared to the first half of 2021 — but fails to acknowledge the existence of the federal moratorium on evictions during the pandemic that existed throughout the entire first half of 2021,” the complaint says.

Cowles said the county’s General Election ballots are set to go to the printers by Sept. 9.

On August 9, the Commission instructed Cowles to place the measure on the ballot after Bonilla and Commissioners Maribel Gomez Cordero, Mayra Uribe and Nicole Wilson voted “yes,” and Mayor Jerry Demings and Commissioners Christine Moore and Victoria Siplin voted “no.”

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