TAMPA — Is rent control poised to be the latest link between Tampa Bay’s two largest cities?
The St. Petersburg City Council’s surprise vote last week directing the city attorney’s office to explore the process of declaring a housing emergency that would prevent rent increases has made the issue of the region’s increasingly unaffordable housing a top priority for local governments.
Across the bay, Tampa City Council chairman Orlando Gudes had already raised the issue, saying at the end of an Oct. 28 council meeting that he’s heard from residents who have had their rent hiked by up to $600, a practice he described as “gouging.”
At Gudes’ request, council members directed city attorney Gina Grimes’ office to report back with possible solutions at a Feb. 24 workshop.
“I get calls every day, people are hurting. I’m not just talking about poor people, but upper-middle class people,” said Gudes, who represents downtown, East Tampa and parts of West Tampa.
Paying so much in rent hampers people’s ability to make car payments, buy food and pay for child care, he said.
“To me, it’s gouging: We’re gouging people, we’ve got to stop it,” Gudes said this week in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
When Gudes raised the issue at the October meeting, deputy city attorney Andrea Zelman said she didn’t want to throw a wet blanket on the idea, but said rent controls imposed by local governments are barred by the state. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office offered a similar interpretation after researching the issue.
Former St. Petersburg mayoral candidate and outgoing City Council member Robert Blackmon was the only vote against that city’s proposal. He said rent controls would hurt developers and encourage builders to look elsewhere for new home and apartment sites.
Gudes, along with outgoing St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster and a host of housing activists, have reached a different conclusion.
Florida law allows voters to declare a one-year housing emergency to prevent rent increases. Those controls could be extended each year by referendum.
“There is a loophole, emergency situations, an emergency crisis. We should have the voters vote,” Gudes said. “Don’t tell me what you can’t do. When that upper-echelon of middle-class people are complaining, that tells you it’s a problem.”
Whether Gudes’ proposal can gain a council majority to set a referendum is an open question.
Mayor Jane Castor issued a noncommittal statement Tuesday to the Times when asked for her reaction.
“There is no more important issue in Tampa than affordable housing, and we are turning over every rock and looking at every potential opportunity to increase our supply of housing to keep our residents from being priced out of Tampa,” Castor said in the statement. “We should explore every innovative idea to help people with this housing crunch, but we need to know more about the details and potential repercussions before we commit.”
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Castor’s statement noted that the administration has made affordable housing a priority. The city has committed $16 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to alleviate the housing crunch in the current budget. The city is also preparing bids to solicit affordable housing proposals. The mayor has vowed to create 10,000 affordable housing units in Tampa by 2027, which would be the end of her second term if she successfully runs for reelection.
Gudes first raised the issue at a point in council meetings when board members make announcements or ask their colleagues to advance their ideas for future discussion.
After Gudes’ comments, council member Bill Carlson cautioned that rent controls could harm people of limited means who depend on rental income to make ends meet.
On Tuesday, Carlson reiterated his concerns in a text.
“We need to look at rent control in a way that won’t cause owners of one or two units to lose their life’s savings. Ultimately pricing is about supply and demand so we need to incentivize investors to build more housing that is affordable. Housing is essential for attracting and retaining the talented people who will grow our economy,” he said.
Gudes said rent stabilization has worked in other cities and he thinks the situation is dire enough for bold ideas.
“I just can’t stand by and say nothing,” Gudes said.
Times Staff Writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.