Emotions ran high for residents struggling to survive an affordable housing crisis and council members alike Thursday, with city leaders ultimately deciding not to pursue rent control this year or next.
Following five hours of passionate pleas from the public and ardent discourse from those on the dais, the city council voted 5-3 against a potential pathway to put rent control – or stabilization – on a ballot referendum in 2023.
Thursday’s meeting ended with protesters entering council chambers, chanting slogans with fists raised.
At the onset of the meeting, called for the sole purpose of discussing a path to hold a rent “stabilization” referendum, Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders threw her colleagues what Councilmember Ed Montanari called a curveball.
“We’re going to remove the request for the resolution,” said Figgs-Sanders. “Because we’re not going to make the ballot. There’s nothing we can do in November.”
Despite the city attorney emphasizing that council members could not enact a rent control measure through a resolution during last week’s meeting, Figgs-Sanders pushed forward with a motion to declare a housing state of emergency. The city council narrowly passed the measure by a 4-3 vote and agreed to revisit the matter Thursday.
The day before the meeting, which followed another sleep-in at City Hall, St. Petersburg’s legal team issued a memo reasserting that rent control procedures require an ordinance and two public hearings. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections deadline for ballot referendum language is Aug. 16.
So, Figgs-Sanders pivoted and put forth another surprise motion to refer the discussion to the Youth and Family Services (YFS) Committee. It would also instruct the legal department to draft a housing state of emergency ordinance that could put the initiative on ballots in a 2023 special election.
Councilmember Lisset Hanecwicz, a former prosecutor absent for last week’s debate, spoke next and was fervent in her response to the process that led to Thursday’s meeting.
“I am shocked,” said Hanecwicz. “I guess some people realize that our city attorney was actually right.
“All these people are here on an issue that they thought they were going to hear about, and all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘welp, you know what, we’re not going to do this.’ I don’t get it.”
After a brief comment from Councilmember Brandi Gabbard over Figgs-Sanders choosing the YFS Committee over others and Montanari noting that everyone involved was caught off guard by the new motion, residents again had their chance to speak publicly on the matter.
For about four hours, concerned citizens – mostly in favor of some form of rent control to help stymie the ongoing affordable housing crisis – addressed the city council. Montanari noted 69 speakers, but it seemed closer to 80.
For the second consecutive week, they gave emotional pleas for help detailing their struggles with forced relocation, homelessness and subsequent mental health issues. Fighting through tears, a young, disabled resident on a fixed income relayed that her rent is increasing by $200 per month.
“I’ve lived here 16 years in St. Pete,” she said before breaking down and leaving the podium prematurely. “This is my home.
“I’d rather be dead than have to be homeless with my disability.”
Some spoke against a rent control measure, including Scott Glass, an Orlando attorney representing the Florida Apartment Association. Orange County, which encompasses the city, recently approved an ordinance to put rent control on its ballots. Colleagues from across the state and some local landlords joined Glass, noting their costs would continue increasing if officials capped rents.
“We have a shortage of housing – I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Glass. “The question is, does it meet the definition under the statute? Is it so grave that it presents an actual menace as that is understood by the courts?”
Councilmember Richie Floyd first proposed a rent control measure in a February committee meeting, which council members voted down due to a narrow legal pathway that could potentially cost the city millions in litigation.
Local activist Jalessa Blackshear noted that Mayor Ken Welch sent a memo to city councilmembers stating he would veto any rent control measures if passed. She added that action undermined “the place-based, grass-roots efforts of democracy that he ran on and ultimately got him elected.” Blackshear then suggested that Hanecwicz use the same energy she used to admonish Figgs-Sanders to help the working class.
She also instructed those in favor of rent control to vote against three recently approved referendums the council hopes to pass in November. Those include ad valorem tax exemptions for businesses, a measure that would protect council members from redistricting changes to residency requirements and changing election cycles to even-numbered years – which would extend the terms of St. Petersburg’s elected officials by a year.
Following the extensive public forum, Councilmember Brandi Gabbard said she wanted to clear the air on statements made last week and reiterated Thursday.
“I reject the notion that if you do not agree on this one idea of rent control and the process that got us here today, that you do not care about the people of this city,” said Gabbard. “Every single one of us cares about this city, or we would not spend the time and energy that it takes to make it better.”
Floyd, who said he came from organizing and was once one of the people yelling at city leaders, offered to help translate some of the anger direct towards the council.
He said he was unsure that his colleagues who expressed their desire for politeness and unity understood those values stem from a tradition of accepting the status quo. Floyd noted the council has previously gone against legal advice to advance causes they believed in and said people currently fighting against democracy also use “unique minutia” in legislation to take away people’s rights.
Despite the public pleas and ardent support as a temporary solution from Figgs-Sanders, Floyd and Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, rent control is off the table for St. Petersburg, both this year and next.
“It’s something that I can’t support, no matter what committee you send it to,” concluded Council Chair Gina Driscoll. “I’m not supportive of this approach because it has too many flaws, and we have too many other things that we could be working on.”
Councilmember Copley Gerdes, who said he was undecided last week, joined Driscoll, Gabbard, Hanewicz and Montanari in voting no.
Following the proceedings, protestors filled the chambers and shouted “we will not be silenced” at the remaining council members. According to a St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman, the activists were not ticketed or charged for the outburst.
However, the SPPD issued tickets for unpermitted camping on city property the night before.