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Karla Correa is an organizer with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.
St. Petersburg residents can agree overwhelmingly on one thing: the rents are too damn high. Community members of all different backgrounds gave their input about what the $45 million in Covid relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act should be spent on, and housing affordability came out as the top priority.
It’s no surprise that residents took this position; it’s been reported that the Tampa Bay area has the fastest increasing rents out of every metropolitan area in the country. This is an emergency, and it must be treated as such.
St. Pete was suffering from a disastrous housing crisis long before the pandemic.
Rents have been rising throughout the city for years, forcing people out of their homes and displacing longtime residents in the name of “progress.”
The onset of the pandemic did not put a stop to any of these things. Even with a federal moratorium on evictions throughout the pandemic, over 5,400 evictions have been filed in Pinellas County since April 2nd, 2020.
On top of the already skyrocketing rents in the Tampa Bay area, people have lost jobs and other forms of income due to the pandemic. Private landlords are accountable to no one. So what happens to those who couldn’t pay?
We saw some landlords work with tenants to keep them in their homes. Other landlords, however, filed evictions and made sure they were carried out.
Evictions are violence. We don’t mean that in any sort of symbolic way. We mean that literally. Researchers from five universities cross-referenced coronavirus cases and deaths with data about where eviction moratoriums occurred between March and September of last year. They found that 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 excess deaths occurred in states in which eviction bans were allowed to expire or didn’t exist.
This cannot be understated: at least an additional 10,700 people lost their lives because, ultimately, landlords’ profits were prioritized over human lives.
The CDC moratorium that was supposed to last until October was the last lifeline for renters. Now that it has been struck down, renters are in a particularly vulnerable position.
We must act now and use this $45 million to make sure no one is kicked out of their home during a pandemic.
At the Aug. 19 City Council meeting, the city presented the results from residents to the City Council, and made recommendations about spending amounts for each category.
Spending earmarked for “public health/safety” needs to be cut completely. You know what’s actually public health and safety? Keeping people in their homes. Imagine if the $124 million the St. Petersburg Police were allocated for the next fiscal year went to housing security instead!
Additionally, while infrastructure is vital, we have a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill coming. We must take the $9 million allocated to infrastructure and the $3 million allocated to the police and move them both to housing.
We must first issue an emergency declaration for the housing crisis in this city no later than Oct. 1st, 2021. The emergency is undeniable, and in order to move forward, we must take this crucial step.
Outlined below is what the American Rescue Plan funds should be and need to be used for to address this emergency.
We need to get everyone off the streets. Immediately. We must use some of the money to fill vacant hotel rooms in the city with our unhoused community members. In a civilized society, no one should be sleeping outside.
We need a huge expansion of the St. Pete Housing Authority. The Housing Authority must assume the responsibility of moving homeless individuals from hotels into empty apartments that the city buys using some of the money We must also subsidize up to the first eight months of their expenses as these individuals get back on their feet and look to obtain stable employment.
The Faircloth amendment limits housing authorities from receiving federal funds to operate new public housing above a certain threshold. Here in St. Pete, we are under that threshold of 891 units. We currently operate 371 units, so that is an additional 520 units that could be owned and operated now by the city.
The city must make it as easy as possible for people to sign up to be placed in hotels and apartments. This should include doing a public outreach campaign, sending social workers to places where homeless people populate like Williams Park, and making the website to sign up as easy to navigate and user-friendly as possible.
Units must be reviewed to the standards of safety, livability and central location, well before purchase.
Next, we need to get these rogue landlords under control. According to the latest data from HUD’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy, 36,470 of the city’s households are “cost-burdened,” that is, they pay more than 30 percent of their gross income to put a roof over their heads.
The working people of St. Petersburg are having to endure brutal rent increases, which force them to choose between adequately feeding and clothing their family, or becoming housing unstable. We need to enact rent control now. In Florida, rent control is permitted in municipalities in times of emergency for a maximum of one year.
In the long term, the city needs a huge expansion in public housing. A portion of the funds could be used for the construction of new housing owned by the St. Pete Housing Authority. All units should offer a subsidized rate. Outside of the Faircloth amendment, cities can just fund public housing themselves. We must prioritize meeting the needs of the people before we think about projects like $80 million for a police headquarters and $93 million for a pier. All the resources there to house everyone in this city.
Politics in St. Pete are controlled by developers and big real estate. Candidates for Mayor and for City Council MUST give back their donations that come from developers and real estate.
We must work under the principle that housing is a human right, and we must relentlessly push for universal housing for the people of St. Petersburg.