St. Petersburg housing protesters hold ‘sleep-in,’ demand vote on rent control

They will be there until the City Council meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, when they will call on the council to put rent control on the November ballot.
Citizens protesting high rents gather across the street of City Hall during an emergency sleep-in protest organized by the St. Pete Tenants Union on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
Citizens protesting high rents gather across the street of City Hall during an emergency sleep-in protest organized by the St. Pete Tenants Union on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 4, 2022|Updated Aug. 4, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Demonstrators laid out picnic blankets, brought out Domino’s pizza and filled coolers with ice on the grassy patch across from City Hall on Wednesday evening. The smell of bug spray hung in the air as 30 people settled in for the night, holding an emergency “sleep-in” to demand that the City Council declare a housing state of emergency.

They’ll be there until 9 a.m. Thursday, when they’ll file into the City Council meeting and call for council members to put rent control on the November ballot.

“This is, of course, about housing and rent control — but also about democracy. We want the opportunity to vote on rent control. We don’t think (council members’) opinions should supersede the will of the people,” said Karla Correa, 22, with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.

Correa believes that if rent control is put on the ballot, it will pass.

“They’re using all these excuses — like they’re going to get sued — but we’re saying where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Correa said.

Earlier this year, after considering the complications of a 1977 state statute that exempts “luxury rentals” from rent control and the likelihood of lawsuits, the City Council decided against declaring a housing emergency.

Correa pointed to Tampa City Council’s decision last week to let voters decide on rent control, commending members for their “political courage” to do so.

Related: Tampa wants to let voters decide on housing emergency

St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens said she heard about the demonstration on Facebook and came to hear residents’ concerns firsthand.

“Are you here to support us or discourage us?” Correa asked Owens.

“I’m always here to support,” Owens responded.

Owens said she was hearing from residents that “housing continues to be a huge crisis,” but also that “it’s a multi-faceted issue.” Residents are not just calling for affordable housing, but also for more displacement housing and clearer government pathways to assistance and support, she said.

But meeting the Aug. 16 deadline to put rent control on the ballot will be difficult, Owens said. A public hearing will have to take place to pass the ordinance, which requires that a notice be posted 10 days prior to the hearing.

Owens said she expects “city leadership to have a conversation about what is possible” at the meeting Thursday.

“The best thing that comes out of tomorrow is that there is more explicit dialogue about what can happen,” she said. “If the ordinance doesn’t make it on the November ballot, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other referendum possibilities. It isn’t one and done.”

By 11 p.m., sheets of poster paper and sharpies had replaced the pizza boxes, now empty and stacked under a table. A drizzle hadn’t deterred the crowd of demonstrators.

“We need to make Ken Welch shake in his boots,” Correa yelled, gathering demonstrators in a huddle as lightning flashed behind her.

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Crickets chirping mingled with a lo-fi beat rendition of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” courtesy of Matt Taylor, who sat with his DJ set under a tree.

Taylor, who was drawn to St. Petersburg in 2011 because of the art and music scene, said a lot of his friends who are artists are moving out because they can’t afford it.

“Art is what keeps St. Pete itself, and if you push out the artists, then I don’t know what this town will turn into,” said Taylor, who said his rent went up $400 this week.

Jabaar Edmond said rent in St. Pete has slowly increased for years, but he’s felt an especially “heavy spike” in the last year.

“We’re a small town dealing with big city problems,” he said. He called on council members to let the people vote on rent control on Thursday.

“It’s the most American thing to do,” he said.