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Council votes to consider housing state of emergency, rent control

Mark Parker

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Aaron Dietrich, event organizer and communications coordinator for the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, spoke on behalf of the St. Petersburg People’s Council. Screengrab.

Continued pressure on local officials to further address the affordable housing crisis resulted in the St. Petersburg City Council voting 6-1 to explore the legality of declaring a housing state of emergency that could halt rent increases for a year.

Led by the People’s Council of St. Petersburg, droves of residents filled City Hall Thursday night to share how a lack of affordable housing in the city has affected their lives. The People’s Council encouraged their followers to make their voices heard at the public hearing scheduled for 5 p.m., although city council did not hear the matter until much later.

Aaron Dietrich, event organizer and communications coordinator for the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, spoke on behalf of the People’s Council. He began the open forum by reading from a “housing is a human right” petition signed by over 500 residents following an emergency meeting the group held on Nov. 11.

“Declare a housing state of emergency and take the necessary steps so that residents can vote on rent control for a period of one year,” read Dietrich from the group’s list of demands. “We have a resolution drafted and in hand, and we urge you to review it thoughtfully.”

Following Dietrich’s statements, the city council heard dozens of personal stories detailing the bleak housing situation many residents find themselves facing, along with impassioned pleas for help.

Late into the night of her last meeting as a council member, Amy Foster asked the legal department if there were any immediate actions the city council could take. She was told there were additional procedures that needed to occur before voting on the draft ordinance, such as a notice of a public hearing. However, a motion for referral was allowed.

Foster then motioned for the incoming administration to review the proposed resolution. She also asked the legal department to review the information and report on how the city could declare a housing state of emergency.

“At this point, I think it’s important that we hear the voices that are in front of us,” said Foster. “We can’t take that action tonight, but we could have a report back from the new administration … ”

Foster told her fellow council members that she currently works in the housing arena and previously worked in child welfare, and what she witnesses every day is a result of not investing in affordable housing solutions.

“People make risky decisions when they are housing unstable,” said Foster. “They stay with their abuser; they’re willing to do things with their bodies because they have to in order to make ends meet.

“I really think we owe it to our constituents to at least ask for this report and hear back in the new year from the new administration.”

Councilmember Darden Rice then seconded Foster’s motion.

Foster was the first city official to meet with the People’s Council following an emergency meeting in October. Dietrich presented Foster with a draft resolution based on a proposal introduced in Orange County. While Florida has a law against pricing controls, declaring a housing state of emergency and a subsequent ballot referendum offers a potential solution.

Once the city declares a housing state of emergency, the matter would then be in the hands of voters. The draft ordinance calls for rent stabilization to prevent landlords from further increasing prices on residential properties. The ordinance would be in effect for a year unless renewed by voters.

The city council approved Foster’s motion 6-1, with Councilmember Robert Blackmon voting against the measure. Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was absent.

“I think we’re very encouraged to see our community petition tactic bearing fruit,” said Dietrich. “But we definitely recognize that we have a long way to go provide the relief that many people are really going to need right now.”

Dietrich called rent control a key piece of providing that relief, but said his organization is also pursuing an array of additional options, such as guaranteed housing.

“How do we build a community where the basic right of secure housing is ensured to all people?” asked Dietrich. “It’s a big first step and a long way to go for that.”

The issue now falls to mayor-elect Ken Welch’s administration, who takes office on Jan. 6 alongside three new city council members. Dietrich said he looks forward to hearing back from the mayor-elect on how to tackle the crisis together.

“I think the biggest thing that we’re seeing is just it’s huge for people to see acknowledgment that there’s a crisis and that things need to be done,” said Dietrich. “And that we need to look at every option on the table to get through this.”

 

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Brad Banks

    December 18, 2021at12:56 am

    And a freeze on property tax and landlords insurance premiums and their mortgage payments. And a freeze on grocery prices and gas prices and clothing and city services….

    All these things are ‘basic human rights”…. Where do we draw the line? This is why so many people voted for and will vote for Trump because those of us who have worked hard all our lives are sick of having to give it all away… The Democrats really are becoming the socialist party I never thought I’d say that but it’s true! Oh yeah and of course let’s not forget reparations! Where does it end? And once those of us who have worked all our lives have given all our money to the “less fortunate“ then what happens? After the less fortunate have spent all that money who are they going to go to for help then??

  2. Avatar

    Chuck

    December 18, 2021at9:08 am

    I agree with Brad. How much pressure will the “takers” put on the “workers” before the workers quit working and become takers. Perhaps we will reach the tipping point with rent control, or reparations or whatever freebies the takers want next? We are experiencing explosive growth in St. Petersburg as visitors love the quaintness of the ‘burg and decide to move here permanently. But the action of moving here is destroying the quaintness that brought them here. This fact is evidenced by all of the development we have witnessed over the past few years where the expensive new housing being developed has led to increased rent for our existing stock of rental properties. Rent control is one more step in the process of destroying the quaintness of the ‘burg. Perhaps those wanting rent controls should make the personal effort to learn a skill which will provide a higher level of income so they can pay market rents and not need to rely on rent controls?

  3. Avatar

    tdj

    December 18, 2021at2:30 pm

    Assuming that others haven’t worked hard all their lives is ridiculous. You seem very invested in believing that that’s all it takes. It’s not. That’s the problem. What if you work hard all your life and it’s still not enough? You can’t score if they keep moving the goal posts. And building luxury developments doesn’t drive up the price of rent. If anything that would create more supply to meet demand. it’s more complicated than your one-liners account for. And before you go making assumptions, I’m not a renter. I’m just someone who believes in fairness, thinks critically, looks at all the facts I can find and comes to reasonable conclusions. There are lots of reasons that people voted for Trump, but two of them seem to be lack of critical thinking and no respect for the reality of the US as opposed to the fairy tale.

  4. Avatar

    Brad Banks

    December 18, 2021at4:15 pm

    Another thing to consider is this: you put all the small landlords out of business and one of two things will happen; all that housing stock will be bought up by big corporations who are not going to treat tenants like human beings like small landlords (mostly) do; or, all those houses will be left empty and then these“less fortunate“ people will have to purchase them and are you telling me the city is going to force the banks to put a moratorium on mortgage payments or force the banks to offer them a ridiculously low interest rate? LoL! That would never happen in 1 million years and we all know why ! Stealing and yes it is stealing from small landlords is not the right answer to this issue. All these people who rent don’t have any concept of what it takes to invest money in a rental property not knowing whether or not you’re going to LOSE it all or not! And if I invest a lot of money in a rental property and I lose money is the city going to come to my rescue? HA! Never.

  5. Avatar

    Mark

    December 19, 2021at4:49 pm

    Many good points here. We are landlords and what is missing in this discussion is the increase in rents provided by section 8. We have seen consistent increases in rent payments provided by section 8 over the years. Far above inflation. None were requested. We are always surprised when we get the increased payments.

    So let’s consider the neighbor across the Street who is paying their own rent. They know their rent will go up just because of section 8 steady increase.

  6. Avatar

    Kari M

    December 20, 2021at7:44 pm

    Everyone in the city including myself agrees there is an affordable housing crisis and it is not just an urgent situation, it is an emergency that is affecting local residents on a daily basis. The problem has been highlighted by groups like the St Petersburg Tenant’s Union and the People’s Council and it is the number one priority of most residents as well as the current and incoming Mayor and City Council Members.

    The housing crisis is also the number one priority of home builders who are desperately trying to add supply but are subject to first receiving building permits and subsequently passing all required inspections to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. The City’s staff in Planning, Zoning and the Building Department is working hard but they need to add more staff to keep up with increased amount of building.

    I’ve attended every event the Tenant’s Union and People’s Council has organized and have spoken in favor of 30 day notice instead of 15 day notice in each of the monthly letters I write to City Council regarding the need to address the affordable housing crisis.
    I’ve asked multiple times for an opportunity for a round table with the Tenant’s Union, the People’s Council, City Council and local home builders. I still think this is the most important thing that we can do in the upcoming weeks to develop practical solutions to the housing crisis.

    We need to work together to determine the most efficient solution and the combined contribution of everyone’s efforts, which may include preserving as much existing under market rate rental housing as we possibly can while adding supply of affordable housing.

    Newly constructed affordable housing may only be affordable to those earning $60,000 or more. For the large group of local workers earning minimum wage, we need to add supply to our Public Housing through additional funding for the Housing Authority, additional funding for Habitat for Humanity and increasing Section 8 rental housing supply. Adding additional inventory of public housing is something we all agree on and have been urging City Council to act on. Pinellas County will be collecting a record high amount of property taxes in 2021. This is the time to make sure some of these additional funds are allocated to fund public housing. We also need increased immediate funding for temporary shelters, hotel vouchers, and expanded funding to keep people in their homes when ERA funds are not available. This is another issue most of us, including landlords, agree on.

    As I emphasized in a meeting I was able to attend between the People’s Council, the Tenant’s Union, and Amy Foster, it is in the best interest of both renters and the building industry to have a unified plan. It is a problem for everyone if we become divided and work against one another instead of working together to solve this issue. We do not have opposing interests. Everyone wants to see additional housing inventory and if market rate housing is not affordable to many of our residents, we need to build work force housing. If work force housing is not affordable to many of our minimum wage working class residents, then we need to build additional subsidized public housing.

    We have the funding available to do this from the property taxes that are paid by homeowners and landlords. Let’s not lose the focus on ensuring these additional property tax funds are allocated for public housing by focusing solely on landlords being the cause of the housing crisis and thinking that punishing them will solve the crisis. The housing crisis was the result of lowered interest rates and increased numbers of remote workers flocking to Saint Petersburg. Lowering the interest rates to stimulate the economy following the pandemic resulting in a real estate buying frenzy that has skyrocketed home prices and subsequent rents. While some landlords raised rents without changes in ownership, many renters experienced rent increases due to a change in property ownership. The new owner bought the home or apartment at a higher price and subsequently owes much higher property taxes so the rents had to increase to cover the new cost of ownership.

    A quick solution to provide more affordable housing is that we could hold free training seminars to encourage landlords to accept Section 8 by offering free workshops and training on the benefits and how to navigate the process of becoming certified by HUD to accept Section 8. This would also benefit the city by encouraging local landlords to rent to local renters, rather than outside corporations managing homes when the company may be located in another city or state altogether.

    While we continue to discuss the best solutions to our city’s ongoing housing crisis, let’s remember two really important things. One is that we don’t want to take any actions to further pressure our local landlords who are renting below market rate to sell or exit the rental market. These are literally the last of the rental homes at affordable rents (below $1,000/month). These landlords have been constrained by an eviction moratorium that was not paired with rent payments to the landlord. Mortgage payments, real estate taxes, homeowner’s insurance and possibly utility payments were still owed by the landlord. The Emergency Rental Assistance funds have still not been paid to many landlords whose renters were unable to pay rent. There are looming increases in property taxes due to increased assessed property values from recent home sales. The state has seen increased home insurance costs and private insurers leaving the state due to climate change leaving few alternatives for home insurance (especially for investment properties)

    The residents of Saint Petersburg are caring and actively involved in the city. The local governments encourage citizen participation. Builders, landlords and homeowners all want to work together to address the housing crisis. We have the ability to work together to find the fastest and most efficient way to address the housing crisis and provide affordable housing to our local workers.

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