🥊 Fighting the algorithm
Hey, look, it's Tuesday! For you today: Making a federal case out of rent prices, Clematis Street, local Republicans break ranks, a cosmic quiz, some hot links, the thrill of the hunt.
Today’s newsletter is a 7-minute read.
💸 First up: Rent prices set by computer
Spurred by sky-high apartment prices, four South Florida rent-price lawsuits have been bundled and will join almost two dozen others in Tennessee federal court.
Why we care: The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in West Palm Beach is $1,760, Zillow reports. That’s up $280 from a year ago.
A 565-square-foot apartment in Mangonia Park goes for $1,275
A three-bedroom in Delray Beach is priced at $13,796.
Rents aren’t the only thing rising.
Eviction rates are sharply up, too.
There are plenty of suspects for double-digit hikes. Was it New Yorkers willing to pay big bucks for small spaces? Foreign investors?
The algorithm in Dallas-based RealPage Inc.’s software turns market-based competition on its head, South Florida plaintiffs charged in their antitrust suits. They target not just RealPage, but marquee-name apartment management companies operating throughout the United States, including in Palm Beach County.
The background: Normally, if high rents lead to empty apartments, managers lower prices or offer concessions. Other managers might lower their own rents to remain competitive.
RealPage’s software enables managers to share their confidential pricing and occupancy information. It then uses the data to recommend rent prices.
Among the renters’ arguments: Landlords can figure out if other landlords will keep rents high. There’s no market pressure driving prices down.
It has “the exact same purpose and effect as if they met in a smoke-filled backroom and … set prices directly,” one suit claims.
RealPage has supporters. For one thing, they say, it’s unlikely every apartment management firm in a city — especially a large one — would be using RealPage, making price fixing difficult, if not impossible.
What happens next? Nothing fast. The South Florida cases and others consolidated in Tennessee come from all over the country. Just sorting out the lawyers for all sides will take some time.
You can read a ProPublica story on RealPage here, and details of one South Florida lawsuit, here.
Outrage over Clematis’ 500 block
Dozens of people filed into the West Palm Beach City Commission chambers Monday to protest Mayor Keith James’ decision to end the permits that allow the 500 block of Clematis Street to close to auto traffic on weekends.
Why it matters: The outpouring of support to keep the downtown block parties is a challenge to the powerful office of West Palm Beach’s mayor. And it comes steeped in politics: The primary backer of the street closing is business owner Rodney Mayo, who challenged James for mayor.
Before the more than 30 community members, business owners and restaurant employees took to the podium, James addressed them.
“It is time to take a pause,” he said. “The closure of a road is a privilege, not a right. We are not going to have that privilege.”
James said not all business owners are in favor of the street closings on weekends that started in 2019. He did not elaborate and none of them addressed the meeting.
Most speakers shared the welcoming atmosphere they experience visiting or working there on the weekend. No one favored ending the closures.
Several speakers confronted James, saying they view the action as vindictive and worry that the whole city will suffer.
Flashback: Kristen Dagata, director of events on the 500 block, said the closings began as a partnership among the city, the Downtown Development Authority and her employer, SubCulture Group.
“You can’t put a price on what we’re doing and the culture we’re creating,” she said.
Yes but: The support for closing the block on weekends extends beyond SubCulture. Maurice Costigan, owner of 500 block landmark O’Shea’s Irish Pub, also asked that the decision be reconsidered.
He said of 16 businesses on the block, he could find just one that doesn’t support the closure.
“We’re coming out of the season. What a better reason to give something to the people who are here 12 months a year,” Costigan said.
Some speakers appealed to city commissioners, who reiterated that the decision is the mayor’s alone.
Commissioners Christy Fox and Cathleen Ward held out hope to keep the door open.
“If it was up to me, we would close the entire street,” Fox said.
Ward told the speakers that she didn’t want to see the sense of community go away. “You have been heard,” she said. “The conversation isn’t over.”
Local GOP members opposed abortion bill
Three of the seven Republicans who voted against the six-week abortion ban Florida passed last week are from Palm Beach County.
Why it matters: While Republicans typically achieve strict party unity on key votes, some were given leeway to vote their conscience. Abortion is an issue that has the potential to harm them at the polls, particularly in liberal-leaning Palm Beach County.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law in a private ceremony at 10:45 pm Thursday, releasing a photo of himself surrounded by predominantly female backers of the bill. Critics warn his support for what amounts to a near-ban on abortion in Florida could harm his national ambitions.
Republican Peggy Gossett-Seidman of Highland Beach narrowly won her Democratic-leaning Boca-area district in November. She voted against the six-week ban. “My vote stands for itself,” she said. “I represent my district. It’s a very complex issue and everyone does their very best regarding decisions.”
Republican state Reps. Mike Caruso and Rick Roth, both of West Palm Beach, also voted against the measure. Roth is term-limited in a district encompassing the Glades, Royal Palm Beach, half of Palm Beach Gardens and most of Jupiter. Caruso is new to a coastal district that includes all of Palm Beach and Singer Island and stretches from Hypoluxo to the southern end of Jupiter.
The only state House member in Palm Beach County to vote for the bill? John Snyder, son of Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, who represents Tequesta as well as Martin County.
PBC House Democrats voting no: Jervonte "Tae" Edmonds, David Silvers, Joe Casello, Kelly Skidmore and Katherine Waldron. The bill passed the House 70-40.
In the Senate, the three Palm Beach County Democrats — Tina Polsky, Bobby Powell and Lori Berman — voted against while Gayle Harrell, a Republican, voted in favor. It passed the Senate 26-13.
🍊 The juice
Fresh-squeezed news from all over
🎨 The Art Deco World Congress is planning a program next week in Palm Beach County. Sonja Isger traces 12 of our local architectural gems from the machine age. (The Palm Beach Post)
💰 An estate in Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Yacht Club with two swimming pools is for sale at $52 million. If it commands that price, it will eclipse the record $28 million transaction this year for a home in the city. (The Wall Street Journal)
🏀 Winning FAU head basketball coach Dusty May might have been expected to move to a bigger program. Here’s why he’s staying. (WLRN)
🖼️ The Norton Museum of Art has acquired a portrait of philanthropist and Palm Beach socialite Amy Phipps Guest painted by John Singer Sargent. Guest, the daughter of industrialist and Florida real estate tycoon Henry Phipps Jr., financed Amelia Earhart’s first transatlantic flight in 1928. (The Art Newspaper)
🪴 Quiz: Growing like a weed
We here at Stet do not celebrate 420, but you don’t have to be hemp-happy to be astonished at the growth in Florida’s booming medical marijuana business.
Our quiz: State-licensed dispensaries sell marijuana in smoking form as well as edibles. How many cigarettes could be rolled from the ounces of smokable marijuana legally sold in Florida between Feb. 17 and Feb. 23?
A free box of Cosmic Brownies to the person who gets it right *and* emails us the names of the four most popular marijuana brands sold that week.
🛍️ 561 insider: Bargain hunting with a slice of suspense
Americans returned about $816 billion worth of merchandise last year, and some of those reconsidered purchases found their way to a manic discount store west of Lake Worth called Hotbins.
How it works: An ever-changing array of Amazon returns goes on sale every Friday at Hotbins for $12.
Customers pore over large bins filled mostly with nondescript shipping boxes.
Employees wait at unboxing stations to open packages for inspection. Once the item is revealed, a customer decides whether to buy it or return it to the bin.
The price drops by $2 every day until Wednesday when the price for anything left is just $2.
The store closes on Thursday to reset, and the cycle starts again on Friday.
The thrill of the hunt meets the Island of Misfit Toys.
Why it matters: The local chain is part of a rising retail sector that liquidates the growing number of returned consumer goods.
Hotbins opened its first store, at 7203 Lake Worth Road, in June. More followed, in Fort Myers, Tampa, Hialeah and Tamarac.
It’s a hit: On a recent Friday, 100 people were in line as the doors opened.
Store manager Mohamed Samara was on the floor all morning answering questions and using a megaphone to remind shoppers not to open boxes themselves. He said his customers choose Hotbins to hedge against inflation. “You can find things here that would be up to $100 on Amazon,” he said.
What we found: American consumerism on parade. Heated insoles, a tiny ice cream maker, a rechargeable pet water fountain, an electric lunchbox, an exercise ball, ice fishing bibs, a meat grinder.
What we bought: Nothing. We are in the midst of spring cleaning.
Yes, but: We were tempted by the occasional coffee maker, kitchen knife set, computer monitor, wireless speaker, humidifier and metal detector.
The bottom line: Hotbins is a way to score cheap home goods for anyone with a competitive spirit.
🎉 The Park – West Palm Beach golf course welcomed the public Monday morning after a short and sweet ceremony. The city’s first Black golf superintendent, Joe Sellars, hit the opening shot at the reborn municipal course.
🎺 Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Carolyn does, and that’s why you will find her this weekend at the Cajun Crawfish and Music Festival in Jupiter’s Abacoa town center.
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