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Proposal to let landlords collect monthly fees instead of deposits gets pushback from renters amid rising housing costs

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Apartment renters showed up in force at the state Capitol recently to oppose a plan by out-of-state companies to help landlords charge a new fee to their tenants, but industry forces had the votes.

It may sound like a good idea: instead of paying a hefty lump sum security deposit, tenants could pay a much lower monthly fee in Florida, a state grappling with a major housing crisis. Tenants usually get back their security deposits, but the landlord would keep the fees --- and they could be of any amount, under a bill moving through the Legislature.

"As you know, we're in a housing crisis here in Florida," said Zalalem Adefris, a Miami Beach renter with the advocacy group Catalyst Miami. "I think, as a renter, this bill does not have adequate consumer protections to ensure that I won't be overcharged if I were to choose this fee instead of any deposit ... So please, think of the tenants and oppose this bill as written."

Senate Bill 884 is sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Boyd of Bradenton. The Tallahassee Democrat reports that it obtained emails and texts between Boyd and Tallahassee lobbyist Slayter Bayliss that included talking points and a draft bill. A driving force behind the proposal is Lease Lock, a California company that aggressively markets so-called renter's choice laws in multiple states.

The Senate Community Affairs Committee passed the bill on a 6 to 3 party-line vote so predictable that industry lobbyists did not bother to testify.

"I think this is an excellent new tool, because in trying to help people into housing," said Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala. "I've frequently seen that the problem is coming up with that much money to make that transition ... I think it's very advantageous not to have to come up with first and last month's rent in addition to getting into a place."

Debate on the bill was pushed to the final 25 minutes of a two-hour hearing, and tenants who traveled from Miami were given only one minute to testify by the committee chairman, Sen. Jennifer Bradley.

"I want to make sure members have time to debate, so if we could keep comments to about a minute, that would be great," Bradley said.

Democratic Senator Gary Farmer of Broward County suggested capping the monthly fee at an amount equal to a security deposit, but payable in 12 equal monthly installments over a one-year period. Farmer withdrew his amendment in the face of Republican opposition.

"The landscape with regard to landlord-tenant law is tilted heavily in favor of the landlord," Farmer said. "Is this a limitless, endless fee that you're paying, so that you actually end up paying more than what the security deposit would have been?"

One Miami tenant said the monthly fee is like paying an insurance premium without getting any insurance because even with the fee, the tenant would still be liable for any property damage.

LeaseLock has given $2,000 to Senator Boyd's political committee, and $1,000 to a committee controlled by the bill's House sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Mooney of Islamorada. Both bills are expected to reach the full chambers for votes in the next couple of weeks.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.