ST. PETERSBURG — The way nearly two dozen protesters who spent the night sleeping through bugs and humidity across from City Hall saw it, the St. Petersburg City Council would decide Thursday who is more important: businesses or residents getting priced out of their homes.
Those protesters broke out in cheers and cries of relief Thursday afternoon as council members agreed to give a rent control referendum a second look. The City Council voted 4-3 to draft a resolution declaring a housing emergency and prepare ballot language that would let voters decide in November whether to implement rent control.
“I was so happy because it’s such an uphill battle that we’re fighting,” said St. Petersburg Tenants Union organizer Karla Correa, who helped organize the “sleep-in” outside City Hall to demand rent control but barely slept. “We know next week is going to be an insane battle as well.”
The resolution and proposed ballot language would come to the council Aug. 11, when its approval is still uncertain.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders had already scheduled a committee discussion on “creative options to initialize rent stabilization.” But rent control can only be enacted by a public vote, and ballot language for the November general election is due to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by Aug. 16.
So, Figgs-Sanders amended her proposal so the ballot language can be given proper public notice. But rent control won’t follow the same process as the other four ballot questions approved by the council Thursday.
Among those questions: Whether to bring back property tax exemptions for businesses that invest in their properties or create high-paying jobs. A ballot measure to extend the exemption was among several voted down last year, failing by 87 votes.
“I think it’s an interesting time because you have staff exercising the referendum for tax breaks for businesses,” said Jabaar Edmond, vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, who also slept outside. “While we ask for an emergency, it’s like we’re talking French.”
City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said that rent control, because it is regulatory, needs to be enacted through an ordinance, which calls for two public hearings. But the council doesn’t have time for two public hearings before the supervisor of elections’ deadline. She added that nothing precluded council members from taking a vote.
That lost council member Ed Montanari, who voted no Thursday along with council chair Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard.
“I understand the pain that people were in, but we were elected to be responsible,” Montanari said. “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and voting for this resolution, in my opinion, would be reckless.”
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Those three also voted down council member Richie Floyd’s motion to declare a housing state of emergency in a February committee meeting. Mayor Ken Welch’s administration also came out against it, fearing lawsuits, loopholes and backlash from the state.
“That was our position when we met as a committee and that is our position today,” said City Administrator Rob Gerdes.
Council member Copley Gerdes didn’t like the process either, but he was the swing vote that gave rent control a second chance in St. Petersburg. He voted yes, along with council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Floyd and Figgs-Sanders.
“I’m going to support this, but as of today; that could very well change next week,” Copley Gerdes said.
Council member Lisset Hanewicz was absent. Her position could also affect the outcome.
The City Council approved ballot questions that would allow The Dalí Museum to expand, move municipal elections to even-numbered years in line with state and national elections and codify changes to City Council residency requirements.
But it was rent control that drew a crowd. Speakers told stories of their own rent increases, friends who took their own lives over unaffordability and professors who had to move. Wheeler-Bowman and Figgs-Sanders shared stories of family members struggling with rent hikes.
Demonstrators spent Wednesday night on the grass across from City Hall, laid out with picnic blankets, Domino’s pizza and filled coolers. The smell of bug spray hung in the air as the protesters settled in for the night. Organizers said police did not interact with them.
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.