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Economy / Business

St. Petersburg affordable housing advocates plan a continued City Hall protest

people wearing masks and holding flyers march through a city crosswalk
Luke Strickland
/
Courtesy People's Council of St. Petersburg
Protestors, including members of the People's Council of St. Petersburg, marched in favor of affordable housing and rent control on Jan. 15, 2022. Advocates have applied for a permit to set up tents on the steps of St. Pete's City Hall in mid-March to raise awareness about the issue.

The permit, filed by the People’s Council of St. Petersburg, comes as the group pushes the city to put affordable housing options.

Tensions remain high as St. Petersburg officials consider the possibility of rent control and other affordable housing initiatives for residents.

The city has been facing backlash as rents for even modest apartments rise above $1,150 a month.

Now, members of an advocacy group at the forefront of this fight are planning to step up their efforts at making their voices heard.

The People’s Council of St. Petersburg is pushing for rent control, but council delegate Aaron Dietrich said that’s not the only method the group is willing to consider.

“We’re in an emergency and people need help,” he said. “There are thousands of people in the community who are wondering where they and their families are going to stay in the next few months.”

The group held a protest Feb. 17 that drew about a hundred people to St. Petersburg City Hall.

It was in response to the city council’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee voting 3-1 on Feb. 10 against putting a “statement of belief” in front of the council that the city has a housing state of emergency.

They’ve also filed a permit for a seven-day demonstration where they plan to set up tents on the steps of City Hall in mid-March.

“The biggest goal is a situation where our elected leaders sit down with people who sit in tents who don’t have any other options,” he said, adding that “people aren't acknowledging this as an emergency.”

“We had discussed that if there was not a response on that demand to acknowledge this as a housing state of emergency in St. Petersburg, that people were prepared to move forward with civil disobedience around the idea of a tent city occupation.”

St. Petersburg Police officials told the Tampa Bay Times the application is being reviewed.

At the same time, Dietrich said his group is willing to compromise with the city.

“There’s no one policy, there’s no one issue or item that’s going to solve this,” he said.

“We’re trying to say from the People’s Council — let’s have that conversation.”

The group hopes to look at the city’s 10-year budget and see where officials could allocate funds to help with the housing crisis.

For now though, Dietrich said the group is demanding action.

“We’re losing our homes, which means we’re losing our communities, which means we’re losing everything,” he said.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, city officials are not keen on the idea of rent control, as an almost fifty-year-old state law defining “luxury apartment buildings” could mean lawsuits against St. Petersburg.

That law exempts such buildings — which are defined as having an average rent of $250 per month in 1977 — from rent control.

At the Feb. 10 meeting, city attorneys told the committee that that would be the equivalent of $1,150 today — with possible further adjustments because of inflation.

If the council wanted to establish a housing emergency and enact rent control, it would first have to define what an emergency meant, and then put a referendum in front of voters, possibly as early as November.

One city attorney said that, if St. Petersburg was sued over the controls, the state law says the burden of proof lies with the city and not the plaintiff. That means, they said, the city is “extremely likely” to lose those suits.

Additionally, rent control would exempt second homes, seasonal or tourist units.

The Times also reported that the city will have results for the first two years of St. Pete’s 10-year housing plan next month.

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