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Could St. Petersburg actually halt rent increases for one year?

An expert says the city would have to declare a housing state of emergency and voters would vote on the measure.
William Kilgore of the St. Petersburg Tenant's Union addresses assembled media, housing rights activists and residents of Paradise Apartments at 330 45th Ave. South in St. Petersburg to talk about evictions practices at the complex. Kilgore spoke at the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Dec. 16, 2021 to call for a housing state of emergency. The council voted 6-1 to explore the legal possibility of halting increases on rent for one year.
William Kilgore of the St. Petersburg Tenant's Union addresses assembled media, housing rights activists and residents of Paradise Apartments at 330 45th Ave. South in St. Petersburg to talk about evictions practices at the complex. Kilgore spoke at the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Dec. 16, 2021 to call for a housing state of emergency. The council voted 6-1 to explore the legal possibility of halting increases on rent for one year. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2021|Updated Dec. 18, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — In a surprise late-night decision, the City Council voted 6-1 to explore how it could legally declare a housing state of emergency and prevent rent increases for a year, a bold move that could draw a reaction from Tallahassee lawmakers.

As part of a growing wave across the state and country to relieve tenants and check rising housing costs, residents and activists had organized for weeks to show up at the meeting and waited for hours to share their stories of how unaffordable housing has reached a boiling point in St. Petersburg. They brought a draft ordinance with them that outlined the legal process of preventing rent increases for one year.

Ten hours into her last day as a council member, Amy Foster had heard enough. She motioned for the city administration and city attorney’s office to respond with a report on the feasibility of rent controls.

“What I see every single day is the fruit of not investing in the solutions,” Foster said. “People make risky decisions when they’re housing unstable. They stay with their abuser. They’re willing to do things with their bodies because they have to in order to make ends meet.”

The council voted with no discussion.

Legal research on the topic will fall to the administration of Mayor-elect Ken Welch, who will be inaugurated along with three new City Council members on Jan. 6. Welch did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

Asked by the Tampa Bay Times on Dec. 7 if he would declare a housing state of emergency, Welch said he would “always look at impact.”

“We’ll have the conversation with folks,” he said. “I know where they’re coming from. It is a crisis.”

A legacy of tenants’ rights

Foster said she wasn’t planning on making a motion Thursday night. It wasn’t on the agenda.

Her first ask was to declare a housing state of emergency that night, but city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said that wasn’t legally possible, as a public hearing had to be advertised in advance.

“I think the voices continue to rise on this issue and that we at least need to get the ball rolling understanding what options are available to the council and the administration and a thorough look at what are the impacts,” Foster said. “There may be unintended consequences that may need to be studied and looked at as well.”

Foster, who is term limited, won’t be on the council to see her motion through. She says she’ll be following along. She is now the CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance.

Outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesman, Ben Kirby, said the mayor shares the frustrations about rising rents and home prices, a problem throughout the country.

Asked if the mayor had explored rent control as an option before, Kirby said that was among the options Kriseman looked into.

In his last meeting on council, Robert Blackmon, a real estate investor and landlord, cast the lone no vote. Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was absent.

“Market economics dictates that supply and demand,” he said.

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Further, Blackmon said, if headlines are out there about the city exploring rent controls, “Developers are going to think twice about coming to St. Pete.”

Blackmon said he was “shocked” that he was the lone vote.

Erin Amon-Surlis, a senior market analyst with the CoStar Group, tracks market-rate rental apartments. The data looks at multifamily units built before 2005 and those built after, which tend to be newer, luxury rentals.

In the 33701 zip code, which includes downtown St. Petersburg, the average rent is $2,266. But for buildings built before 2005, the average is $893 — and the vacancy rate is 2.6 percent.

“Developers are not really building on the workforce housing segment,” Amon-Surlis said. “It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s probably that they’re already full. And it’s not being built.”

How would rent control happen?

Alana Greer, the director and co-founder of the Miami-based Community Justice Project, gave feedback on the proposed ordinance. Greer told the Times that Florida law bars rent controls unless it is determined “that such controls are necessary and proper to eliminate an existing housing emergency which is so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”

“Rent control is not preempted in Florida,” Greer said. “It is very complicated, but it is not preempted.”

Once the city declares a housing state of emergency, a question would be put to voters. The ballot language in the draft ordinance calls for rent stabilization that would prevent increases on residential properties. It would be in effect for a year unless extended and renewed by voters.

Florida’s affordable housing crisis has caught the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has proposed $355 million in affordable housing initiatives — the largest amount spent on the issue in a decade.

Also on Thursday, Democratic lawmakers called on DeSantis to declare housing a statewide emergency and have Attorney General Ashley Moody recognize any rent increases above 10 percent as price gouging.

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