Illustrations by Anika Huda

In April, new tenants moved into the house 21-year-old journalism student Bailey LeFever shared with five roommates behind Midtown: Rats.

But when LeFever approached her landlord for help, she was informed that pest control was the tenants’ responsibility under the lease. The roommates tried to lay rat traps across the house, but for the next two months, LeFever said she would find around two rats per day. Sometimes they were alive, running across the kitchen countertops or popping out of air vents. Other times, they were dead.

“I wouldn’t go to the bathroom or take a shower at night because I was afraid of stepping on a rat on the way to the kitchen,” LeFever said.

At the end of the summer, LeFever and her roommates discovered that a hole in the roof had caused the rat infestation, as well as a massive bug problem and leaky air conditioners.

LeFever wrote her landlord a letter with demands to settle the issue, but in the end the roommates were reimbursed only one month of rent despite not being able to live in the house all summer.

“I was extremely pissed,” LeFever said. “… It was a major inconvenience.”

Renters in Gainesville have little recourse to advocate for better living conditions. Despite current law, landlords often exploit tenants by keeping security deposits for arbitrary reasons, refusing to make repairs or threatening eviction in retaliation, according to the coalition.

To better housing conditions for renters, the Alachua County Labor Coalition (ACLC), a non-profit organization of individuals who petition for equal rights in healthcare, housing and wages, is pressuring city and county officials to adopt a “renters rights” ordinance. The ordinance would create a mediation program for disputes over security deposits, minimum housing standards, and publicly available inspection ratings for properties.

“Since a lot of people are low income or students, they don’t know how to fight, and they maybe think that they can’t fight,” said Jason Fults, an executive board member for the ACLC. “So they just eat it.”

Two major problems the ACLC is after are security deposits and high utility bills. Landlords can withhold security deposits if they deem the tenant has damaged the property in some way. But in some cases, renters are charged for damage that had been caused before they moved in.

The ACLC experienced this firsthand in February 2016 when it tried to move out of the office it had rented for a decade. Fults said Nautilus Realty, the management company, never updated the unit, resulting in normal wear and tear. Yet Nautilus threatened to withhold the coalition’s rental deposit, claiming they had damaged the space.
“They didn’t even know what the hell that place looked like,” Fults said.

In response, the coalition reached out to Three Rivers Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm in North Florida. Fults said the law firm wrote a letter to the landlord on behalf of the coalition, challenging the company’s attempt to withhold the deposit.

“That’s all it took,” Fults said. “Just a single letter from a lawyer.”

City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos is also advocating for a renters’ rights ordinance. The ordinance will have three parts: health and safety, minimum energy efficiency standards and mediation between landlords and tenants.

“We need to make sure that if you rent a place in Gainesville that you can expect it to be safe and that you can expect it to be energy efficient as well,” Hayes-Santos said.

The ordinance would require routine inspections of rental properties, scoring them for overall quality. The better a landlord’s score, the less frequently their property would be inspected, thus encouraging them to perform well in order to continue renting.

On Nov. 8, four of the seven commissioners will need to vote “yes” on the legislation to make the bill a reality. Hayes-Santos hopes to have the ordinance passed so the commission can move forward on the issue by the beginning of summer 2019.

Reina Saco, an Equal Justice Works Fellow, is working with the ACLC to craft the ordinance.

“Young women, students, elderly folks, poor people, people of color – who are they going to go and actually complain to?” Saco said. “I think that is a problem.” •