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St. Petersburg City Council nixes rent control for public vote a second time

Out of time to hold proper public hearings, the council voted 5-3 against discussing the issue further in committee.
Peggy Elias, 66, of St. Petersburg, Jabaar Edmond, 43, of St. Petersburg, and Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, watch as organizers argue with police about whether tents should be allowed to remain outside City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg. Organizers want City Council to declare a housing state of emergency and to put rent control on the November election ballot.
Peggy Elias, 66, of St. Petersburg, Jabaar Edmond, 43, of St. Petersburg, and Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, watch as organizers argue with police about whether tents should be allowed to remain outside City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg. Organizers want City Council to declare a housing state of emergency and to put rent control on the November election ballot. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 11|Updated Aug. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Thursday voted down the second attempt to pursue rent control in a city overwhelmed by an affordable housing crisis.

Council members convened for a special meeting Thursday to discuss putting the issue on the November ballot for a public vote following public protests for relief. After a city attorney’s office opinion saying they did not have time for to take the necessary legal steps for a public vote this year, council members pivoted to considering a special election next year.

But the council voted 5-3 against the proposal by Deborah Figgs-Sanders to send it to a committee that would vet the proposal for a later vote date. She was joined by Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Richie Floyd, who each had initially pushed for the November referendum.

The vote came after a second week of overnight demonstrations outside City Hall in advance of council consideration by activists calling for action. It was followed by profane chants by some of those who spoke in favor of a referendum.

Figgs-Sanders originally proposed passing a resolution to get rent control on the ballot because the City Council didn’t have time to hold two public hearings required for an ordinance. Ballot language for the November election is due to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by a Tuesday deadline. The city’s legal department warned council members that the rent control procedures outlined in Florida law require passing an ordinance.

Four hours passed before City Council members could discuss the new motion. More than 60 speakers addressed the board in person and through video conference, the majority in favor of rent control. They shared personal stories of skyrocketing rent increases in an increasingly unaffordable city for working families. Several landlords and representatives of apartment associations spoke against rent control, saying their expenses aren’t capped like rents would be.

Some speakers were among the 30 activists who held another demonstration overnight at City Hall to demand that the City Council declare a housing state of emergency. They were hopeful following Orange County’s approval of an ordinance to put rent control on the ballot.

This time, St. Petersburg Police showed up. Pastor Andy Oliver took responsibility for eight tents on city property and received a $93 fine and a court date.

Protesters organized by the St. Petersburg Tenants Union held hope that the council could pass a resolution to submit ballot language by the deadline and later pass an ordinance. They were advised by Berbeth Foster, an attorney with the Community Justice Project, a Miami-based legal advocacy firm.

“My job as a community lawyer representing people fighting for social, racial and economic justice is not to talk about what the law can’t do. It’s to talk about what the law can do,” she said. “This was a possible way forward, but by no means the best way.”

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Council members Copley Gerdes and Lisset Hanewicz, who are new to the council, were considered swing votes. Hanewicz was absent last week, and Gerdes voted in favor to continue the discussion of rent control, even though he took issue with the process and said he could change his mind.

Hanewicz, a former federal prosecutor, railed on Thursday against the council following a weak legal course against the city attorney’s advice. Some speakers called her out for showing more anger toward the process than for those struggling to pay rent.

Floyd proposed rent control in a council committee back in February. It was voted down 3-1 by council members Gina Driscoll, Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari. They voted “no” again on Thursday.

Describing rent controls as “landmines,” “poison pills” and “tainted,” Driscoll said it would have adverse effects on the market.

“It’s something I can’t support no matter what committee you send it to,” she said.

After the public testimony, some council members said they were taken aback at personal insults and discord from some speakers. Floyd defended those speakers.

“I’m not sure all of us here understand that when we sit up here and say how important it is to be polite and show unity, those are values that are rooted in supporting the status quo.”

Floyd says he knew the legal process voted on last week “was sketchy, to say the least.” But, he said, “there is a time for challenging the legal process.”

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