Six months after nixing the idea in a committee meeting and immediately following about two dozen protestors sleeping outside of city hall, St. Petersburg will take another look at a rent control referendum.
Thursday’s city council meeting was bursting with residents delivering passionate pleas for help mitigating the housing crisis, many of whom braved Florida’s summer heat and humidity while sleeping on the city hall lawn the night before. They were there to demand council members declare a housing emergency and allow voters to decide on rent control measures in November’s election.
Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders took those pleas to heart and made a surprise motion to draft a resolution declaring a housing emergency. While she is not a fan of the term “rent control” and prefers “rent sustainability,” she said if everyone wants to live together, they must work together – whether they agree or disagree. Following a lengthy, passionate debate, the city council narrowly passed the measure by a 4-3 vote.
“In not now, when?” asked Figgs-Sanders. “Let us try to step out of that box.
“Let us try to be those leaders that we say we are in public.”
Five of eight council members heard a presentation on the legalities of enacting rent control in a February Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting. While there is a legal pathway in Florida, it is narrow and full of obstacles that could cost the city millions of dollars in litigation.
The ordinance might also cause unintended consequences for renters, as landlords and developers could preemptively raise rents. Additionally, state statute stipulates that municipalities cannot impose rent control on poorly defined “luxury apartment buildings.”
Councilmember Richie Floyd called for February’s presentation and motioned to declare a housing state of emergency at the meeting. Councilmembers Brandi Gabbard, Ed Montanari and Gina Driscoll voted no at the time and remain against the measure.
“I am sick of living in a world where we don’t respect people who need help the most, and that’s why I ran for office,” said Floyd. “I cannot look at people suffering and sleeping on the street and not want to fight for them and face the ramifications – if they come.”
City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch explained that a rent control measure requires an ordinance and its compulsory two public hearings and 10-day public notice rather than a resolution. However, the supervisor of elections’ deadline for ballot referendums is Aug. 16.
Kovilaritch added that while nothing precluded the council from voting on the resolution, “that does not appear to be an appropriate procedural mechanism to get something on the ballot related to rent control.”
The city council approved four other ballot referendums Thursday, and Driscoll said using a different process for rent control could add to potential legal challenges.
Citing the February meeting, Driscoll said the city could face class action lawsuits with tens of millions of dollars on the line. The city, she said, would have to move that money from its affordable housing into a legal defense fund.
“And in the end, it gets repealed,” added Driscoll. “I still take the position that we have been working on other ways to address this. “This really is at a crisis level, and I believe that we need to start getting bolder.”
Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman noted that the city council has never let potential legal challenges dictate its position on other issues.
Driscoll broached the idea of a related study and continuing conversations. Figgs-Sanders relayed it took three years to pass a tenants bill of rights, and Wheeler-Bowman said she receives daily analysis on the matter when she walks down her street and sees people sleeping at the corner stores.
“If legal challenges come, then they come,” said Wheeler-Bowman. “And we’ll deal with it as a city. That’s what we do. We are supposed to look out for one another. Lift each other up.”
She expressed the difficulty of enjoying a night at home when a resident in her district who she has “known forever” faces eviction. Wheeler-Bowman emphatically stated she did not need a study to know she wanted to help “Miss Peggy,” she wanted to vote.
Taking the opportunity to make a point, Floyd said that between the 2010 and 2020 census, 4,000 Black people moved away from St. Petersburg. He added that the prior administration liked to “pat itself on the back” for increasing the average income in the city’s African American community but believes that was due to the forced relocation of poor residents.
Montanari expressed his dismay that the council was considering such a significant matter at the last minute and without the mayor present. He said approving the measure poses a serious risk to taxpayers after the city’s legal team advised it would not work. Council members were throwing everything they heard in February “out the window,” he added, to “leap off a cliff.”
“This is not the way to do business,” said Montanari. “This is not the way the City of St. Petersburg operates. We have processes in place to do these sorts of things.
“I understand the pain that people are in, but we’re elected to be responsible.”
In the end, the emotional pleas from dozens of residents won out. A steady stream of speakers relayed stories of forced relocation, homelessness and even suicide due to the exponential price increases that have become common occurrences in the city.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes did not appreciate how the process unfolded but said the issue was important enough to warrant another week of gathering data.
He commended Figgs-Sanders and Wheeler-Bowman for their passion and expressed his desire to help – which he believes he has shown – but also wants to let data drive decisions in the city. He said he wants to hear all sides of the story and see things through all lenses, and the only way to do that is to give the matter another week.
“So, I’m going to support this,” said Gerdes, who represented the swing vote. “But as of today, that could very well change next week.”
The resolution passed 4-3, with Figgs-Sanders, Floyd, Gerdes and Wheeler-Bowman voting yes. Councilmember Lisset Hanecwicz was absent, and her vote could affect the outcome when the city council revisits the potential ballot referendum on Aug. 11.