'We need to do something as fast as we can.' Key affordable housing vote planned Tuesday

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

Seeing what's happening to tenants getting hit with monster hikes as their leases expire in what's become an affordable housing crisis, advocates had a simple but urgent request at a Collier County Commission meeting late last month.

Ask landlords to give 60 days notice if there's more than a 5% increase.

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"Fixed incomes — you're 70 years old, 75 years old, 80 years old and suddenly a landlord comes to you and says, 'Hey, another $500 a month.' You can't afford it," said John Harney, who serves on several community panels including the county Affordable Housing Committee with Commissioner Rick LoCastro. "This isn't an age where people can just roll with it. This is a major life crisis for them.

"This is a huge problem for seniors in the county. It's not going to get better unless they have a little more time to try to sort it out. That's not necessarily going to solve their problems, but it is one major thing that they need, is time."

But LoCastro and Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel were among those who decided there was no hurry during a debate that included suggestions of waiting up to a year to see what other governments do and how it pans out before taking action themselves.

"I'm not going to spend a vote on something just to feel good about it," LoCastro said. "Let's get a little bit more direction before Collier County just sort of pulls the trigger."

In a county criticized for moving too slowly and not doing enough on affordable housing for decades, the "discouraging talk" stunned proponents like Elizabeth Radi, a retail manager who is a tenant advocacy leader.

"We're playing around with logistics, and kind of scooting it by. (That's) just not right. We have people that are homeless because they're not being given the amount of time that they need," Radi said. "We have the ability to do something for the constituents in our county right now. We have the ability to help our seniors, our veterans and those that are hurting from this rental crisis."

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'It's an emergency'

Telling Radi and others the proposal before them wouldn't make a difference, LoCastro wasn't swayed to vote in support of it at the meeting covered by my colleague Rachel Heimann Mercader.

"I get emails from people that say, 'Oh my God, you're not going to believe what my landlord just did,'" LoCastro said. "When you drill down, you find out, 'Well, their lease was about to expire, their one-year lease.' And then they raised the rent, so I mean, the reason you want a longer lease is so that your landlord doesn't have that luxury to all of a sudden pop a rent increase on you."

Radi said the issue goes deep as tenants forced out of their homes scour the region for something affordable while paying numerous application fees and competing with multiple hopeful occupants: "Many are putting in 10 to 20 applications, spending up every bit of money they have, just with these applications, and there are 20 other people on these applications and being denied."

Elizabeth Radi, a Collier resident struggling with the affordable housing crisis, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Naples, Fla.

It's tough on families, according to Affordable Housing Committee Chairman Joe Trachtenberg, who said, "we considered this matter and it's on the table because we recommended that it be here."

"We have people in crisis in our communities. Rents are being increased by $500, $1,000," Trachtenberg said. "Look at this from the renters' perspective. They may have to go to the county and get rental assistance. They're going to have to find a new place to live for sure, have to register their kids in a new school district and maybe find a new place to work."

Rick LoCastro

Over the objections of LoCastro and McDaniel, the proposed code enforcement ordinance was put on Tuesday's agenda for a public hearing and final vote.

"It's a crisis," Commissioner Andy Solis said. "If we don't move this forward, then we'd have to bring it back again, and we'd lose another two weeks. And I think it's an emergency. We need to do something as fast as we can."

Andy Solis and Penny Taylor

Commissioner Burt Saunders agreed, calling it "an evolving process" and making the motion seconded by colleague Penny Taylor.

"Ninety percent-plus landlords are going to comply with this ordinance because it's the right thing to do. Even if we do have some enforcement issues, it sends a message, and I think it sends the right message," Saunders said. He also asked staff to look at how else "to help tenants that are having problems, whether it would be rent increases or evictions or whatever it is. There may be some legislative changes that we can make."

Collier County Commissioner Burt L. Saunders speaks during a board meeting on May 11, 2021.

'Knee-deep'

The ordinance was partly inspired by the 70-member attorney's office for Miami-Dade, the seventh most populous county in the nation.

"It was largely off of Miami-Dade and some just experiences and some research that (Collier) community human services had performed over the last couple of weeks," said Jacob LaRow, manager of Collier's housing operations office. "The 5% is something we've seen for a number of the other Florida counties that have implemented or proposing to implement a similar ordinance. The 5% seems to be the standard."

LoCastro took issue with the efforts by the Dade office, where staff members have been honored numerous times over the years and have gone on to hold some of the top judgeships and other major roles across the country.

"We're all going to walk out of here, and think all of sudden we saved a whole bunch of people and we haven't," LoCastro said. "It's great to throw up your hands and say the county isn't doing anything, but like my grandmother used to say, 'God helps those who help themselves.'"

A construction lot close to the intersection of Immokalee Road and Collier Boulevard on Tuesday, April 26, 2022 in Naples, Fla.

Saunders, a lawyer himself, has history with the Miami-based agency.

"I used to work for the Dade County attorney's office in Dade County. It's a heck of a good office. They used to generate a lot of good stuff, at least when I was there. I'm assuming they still do," Saunders said. "I would ask staff to keep an eye on this issue, and report back to us periodically."

Immokalee, which has been ranked as having among the state's five highest poverty rates, also should get close attention by the staff, Taylor said.

"The soup kitchen, the Catholic Church up there, they're at the center of what's going on in Immokalee, and they might be very helpful because they've already identified folks," said Taylor, before she was cut off by McDaniel and told not to be concerned about the town in his district.

Bill McDaniel

"We're already knee-deep in Immokalee with these things, just so you know," he said.

The commission meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the administration building at 3299 Tamiami Trail E., Naples, to discuss what is on the agenda as Item 9B. The Collier TV Live link is near the bottom left side of CollierCountyFl.gov for those viewing online

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez (pfernandez@gannett.com) writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.