ST. PETERSBURG — Aaron Dietrich took the microphone to read the demands of the People’s Council of St. Petersburg on the steps of City Hall to a crowd of 100.
The City of St. Petersburg must declare a housing state of emergency and move forward with rent control, or protestors will engage in “civil disobedience:” A tent city sleep-in, the last escalating tactic voted on by the People’s Council back in November.
“It could mean arrests,” Dietrich said. “It could mean rain and cold.”
The People’s Council of St. Petersburg held a demonstration Thursday afternoon in front of City Hall, a response to last week’s City Council committee voting down a chance to declare a housing state of emergency. They chanted, gave their testimonies of unlivable rent increases and expressed shame for the city council members who voted down the declaration, vowing to hold them accountable.
The People’s Council got some traction after former City Council member Amy Foster in her last meeting held a successful impromptu vote for the city to explore the feasibility of rent control. But the city administration gave a critical presentation on it last week, fearing “extremely likely” lawsuits, and voicing a preference for continuing with already legal initiatives to mitigate the rising cost of housing.
City Council member Richie Floyd, a member of the council’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee, asked for the whole council to consider a “statement of belief” that the city has a housing emergency. Council members Gina Driscoll, Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari voted him down. Gabbard successfully asked for the city to better use federal stimulus dollars for rental housing assistance for households making less than 60 percent of the area median income.
Dietrich filed the permit application Wednesday for a “nonviolent occupation” of the sidewalks using “tents and improvised accommodations” in front of City Hall from March 17 to March 24. He estimated that 80 people would participate along with 20 volunteers.
St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the application is being reviewed, which usually takes about 30 days.
Ariana Simonetti, one of Thursday’s protestors, gave her testimony to the crowd and signed up to participate in the tent city. Even with a roommate, she’s struggling to find an apartment since she doesn’t make three-times the rent with a credit score below 600.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m about to be homeless again,” said Simonetti, 30, “Everyone’s been asking nicely and going through protocols the nice way and being turned down and turned away because people’s pockets are being lined. It’s just getting to the point where something else needs to be done.”
Mayor Ken Welch did not make an appearance at Thursday’s demonstration but gave a statement highlighting his recent initiatives, including updating the city’s down payment assistance program and seeking an analysis of the city’s affordable housing crisis from Harvard Kennedy School students.
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He said additional programs are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
“My administration recognizes the challenges facing St. Petersburg residents on housing affordability, and I have a long history of successfully addressing these issues, including establishing and supporting programs as a county commissioner that led to the construction of 10,000 affordable housing units since 2006,” he said. “Identifying solutions in St. Pete is a top priority and we are actively working to implement new programs to help renters find affordable and workforce housing, and homebuyers access affordable homeownership.”
Floyd, who joined the demonstration after the City Council meeting finished, said the council could hear the chants from inside the council chambers.
“It was a little distracting but I think that was kind of the point,” he said.
Floyd admitted that installing rent control “would be very difficult, but the process on the way could do us a lot of good.” He said he is working on proposals that should be ready by March 3 that are “in line with the spirit of things happening here.”