St. Petersburg’s path to rent control ballot vote hinges on legal process

The City Council will decide Thursday whether to put rent control on the November election ballot.
Concerned residents raise their hands in support of speakers advocating for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Concerned residents raise their hands in support of speakers advocating for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 9, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The second attempt to push rent control through City Hall may come down Thursday to whether council members have met the legal requirements to put the issue on the November ballot.

The St. Petersburg City Council last week voted 4-3 to move forward with a resolution declaring a housing emergency and proposing draft ballot language. That surprise vote energized renters who advocated for a rent control comeback since the idea was dismissed in a February City Council meeting.

That proposal was not on that last Thursday’s agenda. City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders amended a motion from calling for a discussion at a council committee meeting to asking the city to prepare ballot language to meet the Pinellas County Supervisor of Election’s Aug. 16 deadline.

The vote came after two dozen protesters spent the night in a park across from City Hall to demand rent control. The sleep-in was organized by the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, whose members shared their stories of rent increases in the hundreds of dollars and the struggle to live in an increasingly unaffordable city.

Related: St. Petersburg could have rent control ballot question this November after all

The council’s vote also called for an emergency meeting this Thursday, where the resolution will be the only item on the agenda.

City attorney Jackie Kovilaritch pointed out that the process followed by council members to put rent control on the ballot differed from the process followed for four other referendums approved by the council that same meeting. The ballot language for those referendums were approved through ordinances, which require two publicly noticed meetings. A resolution only requires one public hearing.

Florida law prohibits rent controls enacted by “law, ordinance, rule or other measure” unless it’s necessary to address a housing emergency. The Community Justice Project, a Miami-based legal group advocating for the ballot initiative, advised the St. Petersburg Tenants Union that a resolution is a valid legal pathway to put the question on the ballot.

The Community Justice Project has also advised similar advocacy groups in Tampa and Orange County, where rent control has also been floated. The group has been in touch with the city’s legal department and will be present Thursday.

Dustin Chase, the deputy Pinellas County supervisor of elections, said his office’s role is just to make sure the ballot language follows uniform ballot rules.

“Our role is very ministerial,” Chase said. “Whether it is legal ... is not within our purview.”

Related: St. Pete City Council members fear ‘extremely likely’ lawsuits over rent control

Thursday’s vote likely will come down to two City Council members: Copley Gerdes, who voted to move forward but said he wasn’t happy with the process and said he could flip his vote, and Lisset Hanewicz, the sole attorney on the council who was absent Thursday.

Hanewicz told the Tampa Bay Times she has already spoken with the city’s legal department and is meeting Wednesday with the tenants’ union. She said her understanding is that the Community Justice Project’s position on using a resolution contradicts the city attorney’s position.

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“I’m going to look at the law and I’m going to follow the law,” said Hanewicz, a former federal prosecutor. “The issue is a legal issue.”

Gerdes said he also has scheduled meetings with the tenants’ union and with the city’s legal department. He has also sought the perspective of former council member Amy Foster, who first called for the city to explore the feasibility of rent control in December. Foster begins her a new job as the city’s community and neighborhood affairs administrator next week.

“I felt unprepared, frankly, to make a decision,” Gerdes said of his vote last Thursday. “The only way to make sure that I was casting a vote that I thought I could be proud of and felt like it was based in data was to move forward and vote to give me some time to look into it.”