The Council is exploring avenues for rent assistance; residents demand action • St Pete Catalyst

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After rejecting rent control measures due to legal hurdles, St. Petersburg City Council is now considering $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to address the affordable housing crisis .

On February 10, five of the eight members of council heard a legal update on the declaration of a housing emergency and the enactment of rent control at a meeting of the Housing Committee, Use land and transport. While there was a legal route, the St. Petersburg legal department explained the myriad legislative hurdles that could cost the city millions in litigation and cause desperate tenants more problems.

At the end of that meeting, council member Brandi Gabbard declared her desire to instead turn to the city’s $45 million in ARPA funds to find a solution to an ever-growing problem. At Thursday’s meeting, the council proposed using those funds for housing assistance for residents earning less than 60% of the area’s median income (AMI), which is about $60,000.

Councilman Richie Floyd, who called for the previous rent control legal update, questioned whether the motion simply asks the city administration to reevaluate where St. Pete is spending its ARPA funds or whether there is had additional actions under consideration.

“What is really within our purview is to ask the administration to look at US bailout dollars,” Gabbard replied. “There was a really big plan that was presented to us last year, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation or consideration for rental-specific help.”

Gabbard said she hopes to expedite the process the administration is currently undertaking, particularly with regard to housing assistance. She also noted that Board Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders had a new business item to discuss the current status of ARPA funds.

Gabbard said she believes the board intends to combine the two discussions, which will take place at the first board meeting in March.

“Ultimately how this money will be spent is up to all of us,” she added.

Deputy City Administrator Tom Greene told the council that St. Petersburg had used up most of its Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) money. He said the city is now working with Pinellas County to use funding from its ERA program.

Greene said this measure is being presented to the county board of commissioners on March 8 and he expects to present these results to city council on the 10th.

“So that’s part of that equation, so to speak,” Greene said.

Greene said the city administration and Mayor Ken Welch also discussed and assessed the issue extensively. He said he would provide the results of those conversations, including information on building affordable housing and the distribution of funds, to council at the March 3 meeting.

The board unanimously approved the motion to explore the use of ARPA funding for rental assistance.

Prior to the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Nick Carey, an organizer with Faith in Florida, used the public forum to explain why the People’s Council of St. Petersburg and its supporters were protesting outside City Hall.

The Union of St. Petersburg Tenants and the People’s Council of St. Petersburg staged a protest outside City Hall during Thursday’s city council meeting. Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/SPTenantsUnion.

Carey said in the 48 hours leading up to last week’s rent control discussion, more than 300 residents emailed their reps in support of declaring a housing emergency. . Following the dismissal of the city, the supporters decided to take their concerns to the steps of the town hall.

“We still demand the declaration of a state of emergency and the right for residents to weigh the risks and benefits of an emergency rent control,” Carey said. “This is an absolute emergency, a crisis and an existential threat to our communities.”

Carey also relayed a list of suggested policies that would help tenants. These included six months’ notice of any rent increase above 3%, a landlord register that tracks breaches, guaranteed rights to a lawyer for those facing eviction, relocation assistance and a plan complete guaranteed accommodation in the city.

Carey said the city was operating on a $700 million budget but spending less than 1% on housing needs, and called for a formal meeting between People’s Council officials and Mayor Welch. Carey said residents voted for continued escalation tactics to make their voices heard.

“People on the outside need to know what the plan is to keep them from being moved,” Carey said.

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