While the St. Petersburg City Council agrees that action is needed to mitigate skyrocketing rents and the subsequent displacement of residents, those actions most likely will not come in the form of rent control.
Five of eight city council members heard an extensive briefing from St. Petersburg’s legal department at Thursday morning’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting. The briefing marked the latest chapter in the ongoing saga to address the city’s affordable housing crisis.
The presentation, led by Assistant City Attorney Brad Tennant, followed Councilmember Richie Floyd’s request for a legal update on declaring a housing state of emergency, and enacting rent control, at last Thursday’s council meeting.
The news was not good for those in favor of the controversial measures. While there is a legal pathway, it’s narrow, and full of obstacles that could cost the city millions of dollars in litigation and make the situation worse for renters.
“I think this could have really negative consequences for the short-term, in terms of what rents look like this year until this gets enacted,” said Councilmember Gina Driscoll, who is also a tenant. Driscoll relayed her fears of an astronomical rent increase at her residence.
“And then long-term, looking at the consequences of having to possibly pay tens of millions of dollars – which if we have that I’d rather put that into housing affordability solutions that can last.”
Another sticking point for Driscoll is that the city would have to prove in court that a state of emergency and rent control are the only solutions to addressing the housing crisis. Not an easy feat considering the city recently adopted several affordable housing initiatives and an official 10 Year Housing Plan.
“We anticipate the potential for this (other initiatives) to be used against us,” said Tennant.
Legal counsel explained problems that arise in the wording of the state statutes regarding the measures and the number of preemptions they contain.
A city cannot impose rent control unless a governing body makes findings that establish that a housing emergency is “… so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public and that such are necessary and proper to eliminate such a grave housing emergency.”
A public hearing is required, and the measure would need voters’ approval. While that seems straightforward, the devil, as they say, is in the details.
If enacted, rent control measures would expire in a year. The city would then have to repeat the entire process. According to the statute, the city cannot impose rent control on “luxury apartment buildings.” In 1977, that included buildings with an average rent of $250 per month or higher.
Councilmember Brandi Gabbard clarified that in a perfect world – where the city could enact rent control without litigation – the measure would only apply to landlords currently providing relatively affordable housing at under $1,150 per month. Tennant replied, “yes, that would very likely be the case.”
“That’s a huge concern for me,” said Gabbard. “That we would then be putting these restrictions on those who are already providing that level of housing.”
That was just the beginning of the potential roadblocks the city must navigate before enacting the measures.
First, the city would have to prove an emergency, and Florida courts have offered conflicting opinions on that definition. According to legal counsel, the last time courts thoroughly discussed rent control was during the second world war. Many areas around the country enacted rent control as part of workforce housing for the war effort.
Gabbard noted the city council received 294 emails regarding “the actual state of emergency” and asked what an emergency would legally constitute, especially in light of what emergency orders meant during the pandemic.
Tennant said the city code’s definition of an emergency is very limited in nature. He said the city code is limited to events such as natural disasters and did not think the housing crisis would qualify. He relayed that the Florida Supreme Court – relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent – stated that an increase in prices does not constitute an emergency.
The city must also choose a method of rent control and an enforcement strategy and prove it is the only way to eliminate the emergency. It must then support those findings through commissioned studies.
When landlords and developers inevitably file lawsuits over the matter, the statute states the “burden of proof shall rest upon any party seeking to have the measure upheld.” Depending on the language of enactment, that burden could impact the city or the renter.
Tennant said the legal department considers the statute’s language as “strict scrutiny.” He said there is a Supreme Court precedent that directly aligns with the interpretation of the necessity of the measures and the burden of proof that is required.
“It seems the state has very cleverly put into place lots of triggers that actually make this a treacherous path to go down …,” said Driscoll. “There are so many risks with this – I really would like us to work harder and be more focused on finding immediate assistance … ”
Gabbard pointed out another unintended consequence of enacting rent control. While the city undertakes that process, landlords and developers could raise rents preemptively. She said they could also significantly increase the rent after the one-year term before the process must begin again.
Gabbard said regardless of her empathy towards people suffering through the affordable housing crisis, there are other mitigation strategies without battling the state legislature and opening the city up to frivolous lawsuits.
Floyd then began his remarks by pointing out contradictory legal advice. He recalled hearing that inflationary prices are not a cause for a state of emergency, while a state of emergency is also up to a governing body’s discretion. He added that rent over $1,150 per month constituting luxury apartments was an easily arguable and arbitrary number.
“The emergency is that we’re facing widespread displacement,” said Floyd.
He pointed out that rent in his district has increased by an average of 30% this year. He said those increases force people who have called the city home for generations to relocate, and the cycle will continue if there’s no action. He added that the housing market failed to provide for human needs, which elicited a round of applause from those in attendance.
Both Gabbard and Floyd admonished the clapping.
“I really appreciate the things that the council and the administration have done for housing, and I think they should be commended for it,” said Floyd. “But I also think we should live in reality and recognize that they’ve been wholly inadequate to stave off any sort of emergency.
“I’m disappointed to hear it’s just more of the same.”
Floyd said he realized the state of emergency and rent control measures are a longshot and incredibly difficult but would also like to discuss the possibilities instead of just the pitfalls.
Those possibilities include advanced rent increase warnings, assisting with displacement costs and providing legal representation for tenants. He said the intention is not to penalize landlords – the intent is to address the 70% rent increases that are becoming far too common.
“I do think that we, as a governing body, could come up with a way this works for everybody,” said Floyd.
Floyd motioned for a resolution to declare a housing state of emergency without beginning the process for rent control. Driscoll, Gabbard and Councilmember Ed Montanari voted no, denying the motion.
There are other proposed solutions, however. Gabbard stated her desire to spend the bulk of the $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to address the affordable housing crisis. She said Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders is working on an updated report for her and “wants as much of that money as possible” to help renters making under 60% of the area median income (AMI).
Gabbard motioned to request that the city administration reevaluate ARPA funding for that purpose, which passed unanimously. The motion now awaits ratification at Thursday afternoon’s city council meeting.