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Council explores avenues for rental assistance; residents demand action

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg City Council unanimously voted to explore using ARPA funds for rental assistance during Thursday's meeting. Screengrab.

After dismissing rent control measures due to legal barriers, the St. Petersburg City Council is now looking at $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to address the affordable housing crisis.

On Feb. 10, five of eight council members heard a legal update on declaring a housing state of emergency and enacting rent control during a Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting. While there was a legal pathway, St. Petersburg’s legal department explained the myriad of legislative barriers that could cost the city millions in litigation and cause more problems for desperate tenants.

At the conclusion of that meeting, Councilmember Brandi Gabbard stated her desire to instead turn to the city’s $45 million in ARPA funds for a solution to an ever-increasing problem. During Thursday’s meeting, the council motioned to use those funds on rental assistance for residents making under 60% of the area median income (AMI), which is around $60,000.

Councilmember Richie Floyd, who asked for the previous rent control legal update, questioned whether the motion simply asked the city administration to reevaluate where St. Pete spends its ARPA funds or if there were additional actions under consideration.

“What really is within our purview is requesting administration to look at the American Rescue Plan dollars,” replied Gabbard. “There was a very large plan that was brought to us last year, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation or consideration for specifically rental assistance.”

Gabbard said she hopes to expedite the process the administration is currently undertaking, particularly as it pertains to rental assistance. She also noted Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders has a new business item to discuss the current status of ARPA funds.

Gabbard said she believed the council intended to combine the two discussions, which will take place during the first council meeting in March.

“Ultimately, how that money will be spent is up to all of us,” she added.

Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene told the council that St. Petersburg has exhausted most of its emergency rental assistance (ERA) money. He said the city is now working with Pinellas County to use its ERA program funding.

Greene said that measure goes before the board of county commissioners March 8, and he expects to bring those results to the city council on the 10th.

“So, that’s one part of this equation, so to speak,” said Greene.

Greene said city administration and Mayor Ken Welch have also discussed and evaluated the issue at length. He said he would provide the results of those conversations, including information on the construction of affordable housing and the distribution of funding, to the council at the March 3 meeting.

The council unanimously approved the motion to explore using ARPA funding for rental assistance.

Before the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Nick Carey, an organizer for Faith in Florida, used the public forum to explain why the People’s Council of St. Petersburg and its supporters were demonstrating outside of City Hall.

The St. Petersburg Tenants Union and the People’s Council of St. Petersburg organized a demonstration outside of City Hall during Thursday’s city council meeting. Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/SPTenantsUnion.

Carey said that in the 48 hours leading up to last week’s rent control discussion, over 300 residents emailed their representatives in favor of declaring a housing state of emergency. Following the city’s dismissal, supporters decided to take their concerns to the steps of City Hall.

“We are still demanding the declaration of a state of emergency and the right for residents to weigh the risks and benefits of emergency rent control,” said Carey. “This is an absolute emergency and a crisis and an existential threat to our communities.”

Carey also relayed a list of policy suggestions that would help tenants. Those included six months’ notice before any rent increase over 3%, a landlord registry that tracks violations, guaranteed rights to legal counsel for those facing eviction, relocation assistance and a comprehensive plan for guaranteed housing in the city.

Carey said the city operates with a $700 million budget but spends less than 1% on housing needs, and requested a formal meeting between representatives from the People’s Council and Mayor Welch. Carey said residents have voted for the continued escalation of tactics to make their voices heard.

“The people outside right now need to know what the plan is to stop them from being displaced,” said Carey.

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    Mike

    February 18, 2022at8:58 pm

    Ive watched the resident with pink hair from the city meeting. Ive seen the resident with knuckle tattoos from the protest yesterday. Lets agree to not be held hostage by this group of people. Lets just agree to that.

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