A pledge by Lakeland’s mayor to hold landlords responsible for clearing up unsafe living conditions drew enthusiastic praise from leaders of the Polk Ecumenical Council for Empowerment (PEACE) and the crowd of up to 1,000 people at a drive-in rally Tuesday evening.
Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said he was riled after hearing a PEACE board member say that certain landlords were refusing to take care of conditions at their rental properties and he pledged to fine those who are neglectful.
PEACE, an interdenominational and interracial organization composed of 25 congregations in Polk County, including 14 in Lakeland, each year identifies community problems and pressures local officials to support proposed solutions. This year’s rally focused on two issues – rental property safety and pre-arrest diversion for first-time, nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.
Mutz and City Commissioner Stephanie Madden were asked to attend the rally at the Silver Moon Drive-In to make a promise in answer to the group’s action agenda: Will you work with us to develop a plan by Oct. 1? Both Mutz and Madden said yes.
“I’m angry,” responded Mutz after saying “yes” to the promise. He shared his feelings about a story of a local family that became sick after their landlord refused to make repairs when mold was detected. When their pleas were ignored, the family sought help from a lawyer even as the landlord raised the rent.
Mutz remarked it was wrong for someone to ignore the needs of a family ….”where they would make money off that person and then do nothing to help support any kind of quality of life. Those are the kinds of landlords we don’t want to have any part of in our city, and if we have them we want them fined.”
After promising a “yes” to creating a plan, Madden focused her remarks around the power of a supportive base of people in the faith community who believe positive change can take place.
“What is giving me such hope and confidence in myself being able to say yes tonight; it’s not in myself,” she said. “I still have to galvanize four other, you know, get four other (commissioners) to vote alongside.”
“To be able to see the accomplishments we’ve been able to make, not because it’s the mayor and Commissioner Madden, even our colleagues that have also worked. But it’s because of all of you,” Madden continued.
“If you can come together and break down denominational boundaries and get outside your silos …. and decide upon what action you want to achieve. And you’re the one who voted us into office … that gives me great joy.”
Madden says she’s excited to do the research and have the work done by October.
“We’re exploring options,” said Jhoanny Lunetta, PEACE corresponding secretary. “Our goal is to find the best plan possible.”
That same thought is echoed by Lamont Brewer with PEACE. “We don’t know if there is a solution,” Brewer said. “But we want them [city commissioners] to work with us to research or form a plan to move forward.”
PEACE leaders said they’ve been tracking a mix of concerns around affordable housing and homelessness over the past three to four years. While the city of Lakeland was praised for improvements in these areas, the problem of health safety standards not being met in rental housing has surfaced in growing numbers.
Lunetta said a study by board members and volunteers of housing problems in Polk revealed a high number of mold or mildew in many trailer homes primarily in Lakeland, Mulberry and Winter Haven. A recent statement from PEACE stated mold issues are affecting thousands of Polk residents.
According to a PEACE news release, there isn’t currently a way to track mold issues in rental properties and no way to hold landlords accountable for providing a safe environment for tenants.
“The focus becomes quality of life and quality of housing,” she said.
Ron Clark, pastor with First AME Church of Winter Haven, said citizens need a plan for protection from mold. Many are afraid to speak up to the landlord, he said. “Renters live in fear of more rent, or eviction,” Clark said.
Signs of mold illness can include increased allergy symptoms, asthma, rashes or chronic fatigue, unexplained muscle cramping, and body aches and pains.
“It’s up to local officials to set regulation,” he said.
In addition to commitments from Mutz and Madden, PEACE has plans for meetings with officials in Mulberry and Winter Haven.