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State passes renter fees bill

It could soon get more expensive for a renter who wants or needs to break a lease in Florida.

State lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow landlords to charge up to two months rent as a fee for early termination of a rental agreement, a move that could affect the state's 5.4 million renters. The Senate approved the measure without debate (37-0). The bill now goes to the governor's office for signing.

Consumer groups opposed the bill, which would allow landlords to charge former tenants even when they have already leased the unit to someone else, in essence collecting double rent. If a tenant doesn't pay, a delinquency would appear on his or her credit report.

''It's like kicking people when they are already down,'' said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.

On the contrary, The Florida Apartment Association, which has fought for the measure the last three years, says the bill actually helps protect renters from possibly much higher penalties. Furthermore, nothing requires them to sign off on a lease containing the fee.

Under current law, landlords can charge a former tenant for each month remaining in a rental agreement until they find someone else to take the unit. In other words, if a renter has to break a lease with 10 months to go, the renter could be liable for the entire remaining amount.

''Our purpose was to have a fixed amount established in the beginning as to what someone's obligation would be if they chose to break the lease,'' said Jeff Rogo, a Florida Apartment Association spokesman.


In South Florida, where the average monthly rent is about $1,200, that could mean early termination fees of $2,400.

Luz Bidot, 58, a member of the grass-roots group ACORN who lives in Miami, said she's in the market for an apartment and thinks the legislation is unfair to people down on their luck or otherwise inconvenienced by having to move.

''This benefits the people with money, not poor people,'' Bidot said.

Rogo said landlords need the money to recover turnover costs associated with re-renting a unit -- painting, advertising, carpet cleaning, etc. -- and replace lost revenue while the place sits empty. Those turnover costs are not covered by a security deposit and average more than $1,200.

Rod Tennyson, a former assistant attorney general who helped write the state's landlord-tenant laws, said the argument that the bill could protect renters was off base since apartments remain unoccupied in Florida for just 22 days on average.

Since 2002, Florida landlords have settled eight class-action lawsuits filed by Tennyson resulting in $85 million in illegal double rent charges being removed from the credit reports of nearly 64,000 renters.

''That's why they passed the bill,'' Tennyson said. ``It's a windfall for the landlords.''


He also said landlords, under current law, can legally assess turnover costs to tenants. If the governor signs the bill, landlords could get two months rent and additional money from the renter for those costs.

Daniel Steiner Stull, a board member of both the Broward County Landlord's Association and Florida Landlord Action Group, said the bill was indeed good for landlords who are often disadvantaged by laws that favor bad tenants.

He insisted the bill could be good for everybody.

''Good tenants can help pay for bad tenants in higher rents,'' Stull said. ``It may help bad tenants be more responsive.''

BY MONICA HATCHER - Posted on Wed, May. 02, 2007 - Miami Herald

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