Breaking a lease may get costlier

The Legislature okays a bill with steeper penalties for renters.

Published May 2, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Chalk it up to the lack of people in Tallahassee speaking on behalf of the state's 4.5-million renters.

Both sides of the Legislature voted Tuesday to approve steeper penalties for renters who break their leases.

Though in the past the rent bill was opposed by a cadre of Democrats, this time around it not only won the votes of several in the Democratic leadership, including Minority Leader Dan Gelber, it was sponsored by Tampa Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner.

"To me, it gives an option to a person, to a tenant, who wants to get out of a lease, " Joyner said.

The bill, which is headed to the governor, gives landlords the opportunity to legally charge renters up to two months' rent when they move out early, even if the landlord has found a new tenant to make up lost rent.

In the past, landlords who did that left themselves open to lawsuits on grounds they charged double rent. In eight recent class-action lawsuit settlements, West Palm Beach attorney Rod Tennyson helped remove $85-million from residents' credit reports as a result of such fees.

But supporters like Joyner latched onto a clause that would allow renters to specifically reject or accept an agreement to pay the fee before they signed a lease.

But Tennyson said it's not much of a choice. Ultimately, the landlord is in a position of power to decide that if the prospective tenant doesn't agree to the provision, the landlord doesn't have to rent to that person.

"It's still an anticonsumer bill, " Tennyson said Tuesday.

Last year, renters perhaps had no louder supporter than Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. Since then, he's become a landlord, and his support for HB1277 was so loud he spoke on its behalf in committee when Joyner wasn't available. He said the worst parts of the bill have been removed.

ACORN, an umbrella organization representing low- and middle-income neighborhood groups, voiced some opposition to the measure as it traveled through committee to the floor.

Beverley Campbell, an ACORN volunteer, called the legislation legalized extortion and said she expected to be among those pleading with the governor for a veto.

Rep. Joyce Cusack, D-Deland, said she couldn't explain Democratic support for the bill. "And my roommate sponsored it in the Senate!" she said, referring to Joyner.

"Why should a landlord have rent from two renters? It's a bad bill."

Tennyson suspects the main tide turner was the Florida Apartment Association's newest lobbyist, Ron Book, who is considered one of Tallahassee's most influential.

Campbell said she wasn't especially surprised by the lack of resistance from within the Legislature.

"Basically, if they don't hear enough people making enough noise, it's overshadowed by the moneymakers, " she said.