St. Pete City Council moves closer to putting rent control on the ballot

“Housing is a basic human right. Let us vote.”

click to enlarge An 2020 aerial view of St. Petersburg, Florida. - Photo via cityofstpete/Flickr
Photo via cityofstpete/Flickr
An 2020 aerial view of St. Petersburg, Florida.
On Wednesday night, 25 residents slept on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall in hopes of raising support for a rent control referendum.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders heard them and made the motion for a resolution declaring a housing state of emergency at Thursday’s city council meeting.

The motion was seconded by Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and passed 4-3 with Councilmembers Richie Floyd and Copley Gerdes also in support.

“This has affected me three times in the past 30 days. I understand wholeheartedly what people have been experiencing because it’s in my home now as well,“ Figgs-Sanders said, adding that she recently had to help a family member pay rent and had another member of her family threatened with eviction.

“My reality is drastic change calls for drastic measures," Figgs-Sanders added.
In February, the Housing, Land Use, and Transportation committee heard a presentation from the city’s legal department on the possible consequences of declaring a housing state of emergency for one year in order to put rent control on the ballot. Floyd made the motion then to declare a housing state of emergency and explore rent control. Councilmembers Brandi Gabbard, Ed Montanari, and Gina Driscoll voted against the measure then and voted against it again today.
“I’m trying to be tactful here but honestly I’m sick of living in a world where we don’t respect people who need help the most,” Floyd said. “I can’t look at people suffering on the street and not want to face ramifications if and when they come.”

Last week, Tampa City Council voted to declare a housing state of emergency, putting the issue of rent to voters come fall; Tampa councilmembers are could move to put rent control on the November ballot this afternoon. Orange County passed similar measures in recent weeks. St. Pete’s motion for resolution faces an uphill battle but it’s a start for the many residents facing rising rental costs.

“I slept outside last night because you’re not listening,” Taro Cole said. “Housing is a basic human right. Let us vote.”

Peggy Alias told council about living in a motel with her two toddler-aged granddaughters after being evicted last year. Despite getting Section 8 housing vouchers, she and her family possibly face yet another eviction. She broke down and begged the council to consider letting voters decide on rent control for themselves.

“We’ve got nowhere to go,” she said. “I’m on a fixed income and I don’t know what to do.”

“Housing is a basic human right. Let us vote.”

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The city’s legal department said the state’s rent control statute calls for an ordinance, not a resolution, then urged that there isn’t time to conduct either. Councilmember Driscoll said a study was needed on rent control. Councilmember Montanari called the motion “reckless.”

“If legal challenges come, they come, we are supposed to lift each other up,” Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said. “How can I go home knowing Miss Peggy is about to be evicted? I know this lady, I don’t need a study to know I want to help you, Miss Peggy.”

After months of pleas from residents, Those in attendance voiced concerns about the growing housing crisis and frustration with leadership being unwilling to allow voters to decide. The resolution will have its first reading and hearing next Thursday, Aug. 11. If it passes, the resolution will be submitted to the supervisor of elections by Aug. 16 so that it can make the November ballot.

“When there’s this much pain in a community from housing, we have to take drastic measures,” Karla Correa with the St. Pete Tenant’s Union said. “All eyes are watching St. Pete.”
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