St. Petersburg group wants to bargain with landlords for affordable housing

The People’s Council wants to negotiate on behalf of tenants over rising rents.
Alexander McGreevy leads a crowd of 100 to chant "The Rent is Too Damn High" outside St. Petersburg City Hall in February.
Alexander McGreevy leads a crowd of 100 to chant "The Rent is Too Damn High" outside St. Petersburg City Hall in February. [ COLLEEN WRIGHT | Times ]
Published March 18, 2022|Updated March 18, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The group demanding that City Hall declare a state of emergency to address steep rent increases is now shifting its focus from local government to landlords.

The People’s Council of St. Petersburg wants to organize tenants of large and small multi-family properties to collectively bargain with their landlords, the same way employees unionize to negotiate with employers. They could bargain over terms of rent increases and repairs and create transparency as to why rents are rising, whether it’s to cover property tax or insurance costs or it’s because the landlord is upping their profit margins.

“In trying to apply those same lessons from collective bargaining, from organized labor, I’m really excited for a new kind of unionism that’s much more relevant to people and speaks more to concerns on the ground,” said organizer Aaron Dietrich. “There’s only so much a city government can do in a market situation that we’re in. It’s critically important that we open another front in this fight for housing.”

Dietrich had planned to organize a housing cost protest starting Thursday, with participants sleeping in tents on the sidewalk in front of City Hall for seven days in an effort to get elected officials to declare a state of emergency. But a permit request was denied. The city cited ordinances that prohibit sleeping in or on the right of way, govern the placement and use of temporary shelters, ban obstruction of public sidewalks and regulate outdoor storage.

Dietrich, who was a communications coordinator with the Service Employees International Union Public Services Union representing St. Petersburg workers, says there’s precedent for tenants unions from the late 1960s. There have also been collective bargaining movements among tenants in Brooklyn, Denver and San Francisco in more recent years.

“We’ve seen organized labor around the country decline, even in the midst of the ‘Great Resignation.’ We’re hopeful to try to bring that model of bargaining with your neighbors, of having collective power to another domain that’s just desperately needed,” Dietrich said. “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t apply the same type of model for people who are bargaining with the power of their labor versus people who are bargaining with the power of their income and the money they pay in rent.”

Eric Garduno, the government affairs director for the Bay Area Apartment Association, which represents 225,000 apartment homes in the greater Tampa Bay area, said he’s not sure how the idea would work.

He said he’s not sure the collective bargaining analogy fits because in a union, all employees are treated the same and under one contract. Every lease between the property manager or owner and each resident is going to be different based on when they’re signed or the features of the rental.

Garduno said many of the association’s members have been open with why increases are happening: There are more people moving here than there are places to live. He said more voices calling for increased housing supply would help to address the huge demand.

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Dietrich said his group would look at buildings where tenants are facing immediate increases and where requests for repairs have gone unanswered. He said his group knows of tenants already in need through the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, a group of activists working to empower renters.

William Kilgore, an organizer with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, which has been advocating for local government to implement some form of rent control, said he already goes through eviction records to determine where the “hotspots” are. It’s how his group put pressure on former mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon to stop evicting tenants at his properties.

Kilgore said his group is still pushing for rent control. But opening another front and helping tenants collectively bargain would help in the short-term. It takes systemic change, he said.

“It’s going to take sustained pressure to demonstrate to people, ‘Look, we have power any way we exert it,’” Kilgore said.