Rising Rents Squeezed Tampa Bay Seniors. They Feared Fighting Back.

SOUTH PASADENA — The notice pinned to each apartment door was clear: Rent would go up, for all tenants, in 60 days.

Nelda Whiteman, a 67-year-old former nurse on a fixed income, stared at the paper dumbstruck.

Come April 1, they would have to pay an additional $125 per month.

Whiteman had lived at Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena, a high-rise apartment complex that offers affordable housing to seniors, for two years. She’d found community in that time, cooking for neighbors on holidays because she suspected some regularly went hungry.

Rent had gone up before — around the time she moved in — but only by $14. This hike was more than three times the amount rent had increased, in total, over the past decade.

But it wasn’t just the number that concerned Whiteman. Her lease, which she believed locked in her rent, didn’t expire until July.

How could they raise the rent now, she wondered.

Three doors down, retired couple Cliff and Pat Head wondered the same thing. So did Kay Schneider, a former bus driver, up on the 11th floor, and Bonnie Quick, a city official, on the sixth. Fear descended like dominoes through the building as more residents discovered the news.

“I don’t know where they think we’re going to get this extra money,” Whiteman said. “There is no extra money.”

What’s unfolding at Lutheran Residences spotlights how Tampa Bay’s soaring cost of living has backed older adults already experiencing severe economic hardship further into a corner. The area has seen some of the highest rent spikes in the country over the past year, along with rising prices of other essentials, like food and gas.

Older adults, whose lives today largely depend on the money they earned in decades past, must survive inflation on incomes that generally don’t change, a particular challenge for those who’ve always made little.

Some tenants at Lutheran Residences say they will now spend well over half their monthly income on rent. Yearslong waitlists and climbing costs at other apartments mean there’s often nowhere else to go.

The housing landscape makes them especially vulnerable to the whims of landlords. So even though Florida housing attorneys told the Tampa Bay Times that residents could have fought the early increase, they chose not to, fearing eviction or a future unrenewed lease — circumstances that could ultimately leave them homeless.

“They’re seniors in affordable housing, and they don’t want to lose that,” said Jeffrey Hearne, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in tenants’ rights. “So they do what the landlord says.”

Now, each of the eight residents interviewed by the Times said they fear keeping their housing will become untenable.

George Rahdert, vice president of the nonprofit that owns Lutheran Residences and a member of its board of directors, said the organization remains committed to its mission of providing affordable housing to seniors.

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He said rent needed to go up at the 180-unit building to cover repairs to keep residents safe. A federal loan that helped fund the complex expired last year.

“Just to put it in context, I think a whole lot of people in Pinellas County would love to hear that their rent only went up $125 this year,” Rahdert said. “We’re responsible not for the pocketbook of the specific people who are there now, but for the broader purpose of providing affordable senior housing for a long time.”

Lutheran Residences has had the opportunity to apply for financial help for tenants through the federal government. But housing experts say it could take a year or more for the support to be approved.

Some residents plan to reenter the workforce. But many low-income retirees, particularly those who are older or who have disabilities, don’t have that option.

“I’m 83,” Dearldean Hall, a retired stay-at-home mom who uses a wheelchair, said through tears. “It’s not like I can go out and get a job.”

An exterior look at the Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in South Pasadena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Feeling the squeeze

Like many Florida retirement stories, living at Lutheran Residences started with a dream, one of basic comfort later in life.

Tenants recall their first glimpse of the 16-story complex, off Park Street South, just outside Gulfport. Inside, their windows provided views of flickering teal water and white ibises.

They were won over by the grocery stores, the doctor’s offices and the banks, all within walking distance, or a short bus ride away. Here was a home they could age into, even if they couldn’t afford a car or lost their ability to drive one. A place where a domestic violence counselor who for decades earned $11,000 a year, or a stay-at-home mom, could retire.

“Everything I need is within distance of me and my wheelchair,” said Hall, who has lived in the building since 2018. “My church, my friends, my doctor.”

It wasn’t perfect. Residents said they’ve been concerned about conditions inside the aging building for years: the flooding and leaks in their apartments, the long waits for elevator repairs and garbage pickup. The discoveries of what they believed to be black mold worming along their ceilings, photographed and provided to a city official.

Still, federal funding kept the place within reach.

For five decades, Lutheran Residences was paying back a mortgage from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Owners had to follow agency requirements, including that the apartments remain affordable.

But, unbeknownst to many tenants, the loan was paid off in December, meaning Lutheran Residences can raise rent without government permission.

Twenty-five other buildings that offer affordable housing for the elderly in Tampa Bay are slated to lose their federal subsidies in the next 20 years, and three will expire in the next five, according to a University of Florida database that helps residents find low-income housing. Their future as affordable housing complexes is unclear.

Lutheran Residences’ owners last attempted to raise rent by just under $50 in 2020, while they were still subject to federal housing guidelines, according to interviews with tenants and notices from building management at the time.

Even then, residents felt the squeeze.

“Just the…insulin I need to stay alive is costing me $364.69 for a 90 day supply,” one resident wrote to housing officials in February 2020. “I will not be able to pay the said requested rise of $48.00 a month on my little 1 bedroom apartment here.”

He continued, “If HUD allows such a hike in its project housing, who among the existing poor will have any housing left?”

The federal agency allowed the building to raise rent by $14.

Over the last decade, Rahdert said, rent has increased by a total of $37.

”It’s been unrealistically low for too long,” he said.

With the rent increase, Rahdert said, Lutheran Residences will remain one of the most affordable senior housing complexes in the area, with one-bedroom apartments listed at $682 per month and studios at $605.

“Everybody would love to rent for another 10 years in a building that has no rent increases,” he said. “I guess we’d all like free ice cream and streets made out of candy. But nobody would like having a building that crashes and doesn’t have any funding to pay for repairs.”

Dearldean “Dee” Hall, 83, in her apartment living room at the Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

‘Where am I supposed to go?’

At the same time tenants received word that their rent would increase, Lutheran Residences’ management told them they needed to sign a form agreeing to the higher rate.

“If you wish to continue your tenancy, the new monthly rental payment is required,” the Feb. 1 notice read.

Residents had believed a yearlong lease guaranteed no changes to their rent for 12 months, at least not without approval from the federal government. But with few other practical options, they signed the addendum anyway.

Three housing experts reviewed Lutheran Residences’ active lease for tenants and the rent increase notice for the Times. They said residents could have contested the increase.

“I think there’s a strong argument that they can’t change the rent in the middle of the lease term,” said Hearne, the University of Miami professor. “Just under the plain language of the contract.”

But once tenants signed the addendum, they forfeited the right to fight it, Hearne said.

“If I was advising a client with this lease, I wouldn’t have them sign the addendum,” Hearne said. “But when you’ve got elderly people in affordable housing, what are they going to do? They’ll do what most of them did — they just sign it.”

Contesting a rent increase would take time, money and a trip to court. Even if a court ruled in a tenant’s favor, a landlord has no obligation to renew their lease in the future.

All eight residents who spoke to the Times said they feared eviction if they chose not to sign.

“They’re not dealing with stupid people here; we know what’s going on,” Hall said. “They sent around that addendum so they would be protected. If we could do something about it, we would. But if they kick me out, where am I supposed to go?”

Rahdert said Lutheran Residences believes its contract with tenants allowed the rent to increase mid-lease and that raising rent in spring made sense.

“There’s a certain amount of fairness in there that says, ‘OK, everybody has to start chipping in a little bit more,’” Rahdert said.

Rahdert said board members relied on Elevation Property Management, which handles day-to-day-operations at the complex, to determine when the increase could take effect.

A spokesperson for Elevation said the company could not comment on business decisions at Lutheran Residences and referred the Times back to the building’s board.

Pat and Cliff Head’s apartment at Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Few alternatives

When rent rises, moving is complicated — particularly for seniors, like those at Lutheran Residences, who must quickly find a new place to land.

Demand for affordable senior housing in Tampa Bay has skyrocketed in the last year, while supply, already scant, hasn’t kept up.

Seniors tend to stay put, making openings in affordable buildings exceedingly rare.

“We hardly ever have turnover because people don’t move, especially now, because of the affordability,” said Regina Booker, interim executive director at the Pinellas County Housing Authority.

Booker said the county’s low-income properties can have waitlists up to five years.

Wait times for other affordable senior housing in the area range from six months to five years, according to a Times’ survey of more than 15 apartment complexes in Pinellas County.

Bonnie Quick, 77, in the living room of her apartment at the Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Since finding other housing is unlikely for tenants at Lutheran Residences, securing help from the federal government may be their strongest chance at staying afloat.

When affordable housing agreements expire, the Department of Housing and Urban Development allows building owners to apply for what’s known as, “tenant protection vouchers,” to help residents pay for rising rent.

Rahdert said property managers will submit the building’s application imminently. Lutheran Residences had waited to raise rent, he said, until the building could first collect voucher eligibility information from tenants.

“We postponed it for three months to roll it out, and do it in the most beneficial way for the residents,” Rahdert said.

Bridgett Simmons, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project who specializes in federally subsidized housing, said building owners can apply for the vouchers up to 180 days before their loans end. That means Lutheran Residences could have applied last summer.

“It’s really a shame that it wasn’t done before the mortgage expired, because it can be a lengthy process,” she said.

Often, approval can take up to a year.

Building management, Rahdert said, gave residents two written notices about the vouchers earlier this year and offered to help them with the applications. He said property managers have waited to submit the documents to give tenants ample time to apply, and ultimately, about 45 percent of residents did. He called the low turnout disappointing.

“I would say anybody who did not elect to apply for a voucher presumably is capable of paying the rent,” Rahdert said.

To apply, tenants had to gather proof of income and assets, such as their social security earnings and bank statements, by March 26.

Residents said many of their older neighbors didn’t fill out the application because they found it confusing, or feared it was a scam.

“People in this age demographic are particularly sensitive about sharing their financial information,” said Quick, the city official. “Here, it’s always just like, ‘Fill out the paperwork and shut up. If you don’t like it, move out.’”

‘Where’s the rest of life?’

Residents say the future is daunting. They plan to take it month-by-month, hoping somehow to find an extra $125 each time. They’ll have little wiggle room for any of life’s expensive surprises, like medical emergencies or car trouble.

Whiteman, the former nurse, has come out of retirement to clean houses every other week so she can pay her rent.

Hall now spends nearly 60 percent of her monthly income on housing. She cut her cable, and is buying fewer of the fruits, nuts and greens her doctor recommends for her high blood pressure — they’re too expensive.

Schneider’s handling the increase “by the skin of her teeth,” but worries that she’ll have to move into her car. It’s not just the rent, she said, it’s rising food, medical and gas costs.

“For everybody in here,” Schneider said, “it’s just all happening at once.”

On a recent March afternoon, piles of Pat and Cliff Head’s possessions littered their apartment floor like breadcrumbs leading them further from their retirement dream.

“I apologize for the mess,” Pat Head said, gesturing to the books and storage boxes on the floor.

“We’re getting rid of stuff,” Cliff Head explained. “In case we have to move.”

They feel lucky to have a double income but worry about the years ahead.

“I’m looking forward to cat food,” said Pat Head.

“I ain’t eating cat food,” her husband countered.

“There’s more food banks around here than before,” he continued. “Don’t worry about cat food.”

Tenants have been told that rent may continue to rise, but during quiet moments, and apartment Bible studies, they pray that it won’t.

“We’re not living – we’re just existing,” Whiteman said. “We have a roof over our head, food on our table.

“I praise God for that every day,” she said. “But where’s the rest of life?”

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