There’s positive news about affordable housing, but for Karla Correa and her grassroots advocacy group, it’s not enough to reassure them that ordinary people will find a place to live in St. Petersburg.
Correa is an organizer with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, a feisty group tapping into the nationwide cry for reasonable rents, fairness in housing and protection from homelessness.
Correa, a 22-year-old clerical worker, doesn’t quite speak in apocalyptic terms, but comes close.
“We know the clock is ticking. We’re fighting not to be priced out,” she said. “It’s an emergency.”
Her responses were rapid-fire when asked about recent announcements of new affordable housing, plans to give some city employees a subsidy so they can afford to live in the city they serve, and about the Tenant Union’s push for rent control.
A city proposal that would require landlords to give tenants notice before raising their rents more than 5 percent falls short of what is needed, Correa declared.
The requirement for such notices was proposed by Council Chair Gina Driscoll, who sits on the Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee. After an hour-long meeting Thursday, committee members settled on proposing an ordinance that would require landlords to give a 60-day notice before raising rents for one-year leases, 30 days for three-month leases, and 21 days for month-to-month agreements.
“We don’t think that’s good enough,” said Correa, who has a month-to-month lease in one of the city’s dwindling stock of older downtown buildings. “We think it should be a six-month notice for rent increases … We are disappointed.”
She’s fearful of what would happen if she’s faced with an exorbitant rent hike. “One, I don’t have any money to move. There are all these apartments getting built downtown. That means my rent is going to be raised.”
The Tenants Union has found a champion in Council Member Richie Floyd.
“Rents are going up regardless as to whether or not we do this notice,” he said during an interview Thursday.
“If a landlord can figure out how to issue a notice for 60 days, they can figure out how to do it for 180. We talked to the Homeless Leadership Alliance and it’s taking the average renter about three months to find a place they can afford. Sixty days is better than nothing, but giving a dollar to a beggar is better than nothing, as well.”
Driscoll told me she understands first-hand the anxieties of renters. “My building was recently sold. I didn’t know who was going to buy it, or if I would have to move. So, when we talk about these issues, it is easy for me to put myself in those shoes, because I am wearing those shoes myself,” she said.
“I would much rather the 21-day notice that my rent is going up and have the time to figure out how I can close that gap. I would rather face that than receive a 21-day notice to vacate,” said Driscoll, who, like Correa, is on a month-to-month lease.
She said the proposed ordinance dovetails with efforts the city has already made on behalf of renters.
But the Tenants Union is not impressed. They’ve lobbied unsuccessfully for the city to declare a state of emergency in their push for rent control. Floyd raised the issue, but got no support from his colleagues on the housing committee.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said of his effort, “the 30 percent increases in rent year- over-year are not sustainable for the people who work here and have lived here all their lives.”
Driscoll noted that when rent control was discussed earlier this year, it was determined that “the way that state law is written and the process you have to follow to do that exposed the city to legal challenges that would be incredibly expensive.”
Implementing rent control could have resulted in unintended consequences and created an even worse problem in the city, she said.
Correa, though, accuses St. Petersburg of being “fundamentally anti-democratic” for refusing to give residents the chance to vote on the issue. “It’s just outrageous the rent increases that are happening right now. The rent increases have not slowed down and we need to continue pushing for that,” she said. “The city is kind of acting like their hands are tied right now, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.”
Correa has been involved with the tenants group since it was founded in August 2020 by William Kilgore, who was himself displaced from a downtown apartment. Jalessa Blackshear attended Thursday’s meeting with Kilgore and Correa. Her Tri-Partisan Canvas, which “encourages civic engagement,” partners with the Tenants Union.
“They are hyper-focused on universal rights for all tenants,” she said. “I witnessed displacement. I have witnessed gentrification, primarily in the neighborhood of Palmetto Park and south.”
Floyd has proposed a program to guarantee legal representation for tenants, particularly addressing evictions. He said that can be accomplished by partnering with a legal service, but wants to make sure that income restrictions are not a barrier to assistance.
“What we are kind of pushing is, we’re hoping to be the first city of Florida to get a tenants’ rights ‘right to counsel,’ because, according to various studies, over 90 percent of landlords are represented by lawyers,” Correa said.
“Some studies say less than 2 percent of renters have lawyers during eviction proceedings. It’s difficult to obtain a lawyer. When you have a lawyer, you have a better chance of fighting an eviction.”
The tenants organization would like to see a city-funded office where tenants can call around the clock to get information about their rights and be connected with resources, such as legal help.
“That’s the kind of role that we’re playing right now,” she said. “We are all volunteers.”
Thursday, Community and Neighborhood Affairs Administrator James Corbett announced a new position in the Codes Compliance Assistance Department to help with tenant issues.
In an email, Corbett said a community support specialist will focus on two main responsibilities.
“The first will be handling any complaints and enforcement of potential Tenants Bill of Rights violations. The second will be conducting proactive research on eviction records to connect those tenants with resources that are available to them,” he wrote.
Corbett added that while the employee will not provide legal services or advice regarding evictions, “the goal is to connect those tenants as early as possible to resources that they may not be aware of, or may not have pursued” without the outreach efforts of the support specialist.
“That is a very good thing,” Correa said of the new position, but tempered her praise. “It needs to be a team of people, because the amount of people that are having issues right now is going to be more than one person’s full-time job.”
She spoke about what she’s seen: “Landlords turning off water and power. We’ve seen landlords locking tenants out of their homes. In one particularly bad case, the Sheriff tried to evict this woman out of her home. Luckily, we were able to get her legal counsel. We don’t know how many people are falling through the cracks.”
As for affordable housing, members of the Tenants Union have their own ideas. They plan to weigh in on the redevelopment of Tropicana Field during Mayor Ken Welch’s community discussions. The group is pushing for city-owned public housing.
“The biggest idea is to have more city-owned housing that is rent-controlled for people of all income levels,” Floyd said. “We can spend the money more efficiently to create more and better affordable housing if we do it ourselves.”
On another housing matter, Correa agrees with the plan to give city employees who are required to live within city limits up to $500 a month in rental assistance. But she offers stinging criticism, as well. The program will put tax dollars into the pockets of landlords and is a bailout, she said.
She’s also upset that employees will have to participate in financial literacy classes to benefit from the rental assistance. She sees it as demeaning.
“This crisis is not a matter of anyone mismanaging their money,” she said. “When your rent is raised $500 and you can’t afford to live, that’s not a matter of you mismanaging your money.”