By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — Less than two weeks before Election Day, a divided appeals court has rejected an Orange County ballot measure aimed at imposing rent controls.
A panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision Thursday, sided with the industry group Florida Realtors and the Florida Apartment Association, which sought a temporary injunction to block the measure.
With voters already casting ballots by mail and at early voting sites, the appeals court said that, at a minimum, it anticipates “the results of the ballot initiative will not be certified.” The court pointed, in part, to a 1977 state law designed to prevent rent control and said Orange County had not met requirements to justify its proposal.
The Orange County Commission in August passed an ordinance that put the measure on the ballot. But the court said, in part, the ordinance’s findings did not illustrate an “existing housing emergency” as required by law.
“While we do not minimize the evidence supporting a complex, multifaceted issue affecting renters in Orange County, it was insufficient under the law to support a rent control measure,” said the 34-page majority opinion, written by Judge Dan Traver and joined by Judge Meredith Sasso.
Also, the majority said the ballot summary — the wording that people see when they vote — did not adequately describe the measure.
“The summary is misleading not because of what it says, but because of what it does not say,” Traver wrote “Critically, the ordinance purports to control rent in two ways. The first restricts the frequency of rental increases to one time per twelve-month period. The second limits the amount of these increases by tying them to the Consumer Price Index. The ballot summary, however, only advises the voter about the amount of rent control, but not its frequency. This omission is confusing because the chief purpose of the initiative is rent control, but the ballot summary misleads on how the ordinance will effectuate this purpose. It does not, in other words, accurately advise a voter about the ordinance’s scope.”
But Judge Jay Cohen dissented, writing that the county “presented a plethora of facts supporting its position that a housing crisis exists in Orange County, an emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”
“Realtors do not dispute that, as a result of the affordable housing shortage, families are struggling to afford essential life necessities, from food and utilities to medical expenses, at the same time that the decreased ability to pay for transportation affects employment opportunities,” Cohen wrote in a seven-page dissent. “These are not simply statistics; these factual findings reflect real people facing rent hikes that are not only historic, but which dwarf prior records and show no signs of abating given the undisputed population growth and housing shortage.”
Cohen also disagreed on whether the ballot wording is misleading, citing a 75-word limit on such summaries.
“Here, the ballot summary clearly sets out the main purpose of the ordinance — to limit rent increases for certain residential rental units to not exceed the Consumer Price Index,” Cohen wrote. “The frequency with which such rent can be increased over the one-year time frame allowed by law is not the chief purpose of the ordinance; nor does the absence of those details render the summary misleading. Simply put, under Florida law, the ballot summary did not have to contain every detail or ramification of the ordinance to provide its chief purpose within the 75-word limit.”
Orange County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ashton in September denied the motion for a temporary injunction, though he concluded that the plaintiffs had a “substantial likelihood of succeeding” in the challenges to the ordinance and ballot summary, according to the appeals court. Thursday’s decision overturned the denial of the temporary injunction.