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.”