ST. PETERSBURG — Demonstrators perched on City Hall’s steps on Wednesday night, eyeing the grassy patch across the street they had slept on last week to demand City Council take action on rent control. The ground was softer there, but eight Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies stood guard under the trees.
Tents and sleeping bags would have to go up on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, organizers decided.
Around 30 people planned to sleep outside, just as they did the week prior with no police interaction, to call on City Council members to declare a housing emergency and put rent control on the November ballot at its special meeting Thursday afternoon.
The air was humid, charged with hope and determination after City Council members agreed to give a rent control referendum another look last week. A resolution declaring a housing emergency and proposing ballot language was to be presented to council members at the special meeting Thursday morning.
But protesters also knew they faced an uphill battle, as the city attorney’s office has warned council members that they aren’t following the proper steps to put rent control on the ballot.
Then, shortly after the protest started at 9 p.m., two St. Petersburg Police Department officers rounded the corner. Protesters could stay, but the tents had to be moved off city property, they warned, citing a city ordinance.
“Are you going to seize the tents?” demonstrators cried out, gathering around the two officers with their phone cameras raised and recording.
Soon, Police Chief Anthony Holloway arrived, meandering through the street. Tents couldn’t touch City Hall’s grass or block the sidewalk, he said. And if a tent stayed up after the first citation, more fines or an arrest could follow.
“We’re prepared to go to jail,” responded Andy Oliver, a pastor at Allendale United Methodist Church.
Jalessa Blackshear, an organizer with Tri-Partisan Canvas, climbed atop City Hall’s steps and guided protesters through three deep breaths. In and out. Jason Stuart Flores, an indigenous activist, knelt down and burned sage, praying for peace. At the end of the street, Oliver huddled with people to discuss the possible consequences of not removing the tents — first with organizers, then Holloway.
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Eventually, Oliver shook Holloway’s hand. In his other hand, he grasped a yellow citation documenting a $93 fine for eight tents, for which he took responsibility. Officers decided to not return until 6 a.m., when Oliver agreed to take the tents down.
“It’s absolutely a price worth paying,” he said, noting that Holloway could have hiked the fine up to $93 for each tent.
Oliver and others saw the night as a representation of the grim reality many St. Petersburg residents face now as they get priced out of their homes.
“I may be getting arrested tonight,” Oliver said. “But we know people without homes are arrested everyday in the city … This is about what people without homes, because of the city’s policies, experience day in and day out — the illegalization of their existence, the dehumanization of their experience.”
The rent control proposal faces tough odds. The city attorney’s office has said must adopt an ordinance, rather than a resolution, to put rent control on the ballot. The council does not have enough time to give public notice and schedule two public hearings required for an ordinance before Tuesday, the deadline to submit ballot language to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
Mayor Ken Welch and his administration remain opposed to the proposal, according to a memo sent Wednesday to council members. The current process puts the city at risk for costly litigation, he wrote.
“The city’s legal department has drafted a resolution set up to fail ... We know that the city’s legal department serves at the behest of Ken Welch and they’re just stacking the deck against working class tenants and reinforcing his anti-rent control position,” said Karla Correa, a St. Petersburg Tenants Union organizer.
Correa pointed to a newer law that she, along with the Community Justice Project, a Miami-based legal group that advises housing advocates, said allows for a resolution to authorize a ballot question. Under this law, she said, the ballot question can go through the ordinance process after the language is submitted to the Supervisor of Elections.