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Efforts to put rent control in St. Pete on November ballot fail

The city attorney said a measure on the ballot would require an ordinance, not a resolution. Otherwise, the city could open itself to legal challenges.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — City leaders voted down plans for adding rent control to the November ballot during a special meeting Thursday evening.

Council members scrapped the resolution by a 5-3 vote, ending the chances for rent control measures to be up for voters to decide. The packed meeting lasted for more than five hours and included at least 65 speakers during public comments, according to the city. It ended with some tenants shouting at council members.

The vote came down to concerns regarding legal challenges. 

Ahead of the vote, the city attorney advised the council in a memo that a resolution of a rent control measure is not legally sufficient. Instead, an ordinance would need to be adopted.

However, that comes with a tight deadline. 

By next Tuesday, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections would need the wording of the ballot ready. Adopting an ordinance would still require two public hearings and two opportunities for public comments.

Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders motioned to refer the rent control item to the Youth and Family Services committee for a continued discussion and have a draft ordinance be written through that route. Figgs-Sanders expressed interest in having the measure ready for a special primary election next year, but the motion failed.

After the meeting, Council Chair Gina Driscoll said she'd be seeking more steps to bring relief to St. Pete residents.

“I will be talking with the administration to see what we can put together now to strengthen the assistance that we provide for renters in our city,” Driscoll said. “And we can reach out to the county as well to see how, perhaps, we can work together for some real relief, because we need it…I’m a renter too, I understand.”

Renters spent the night outside of City Hall in tents ahead of the meeting for a second week in a row, demanding the measure. 

The council approved plans last week to move forward with plans to explore in a 4-3 vote after the initial tent demonstration. 

In December of last year, the council, made up of different members, agreed to look into a housing emergency declaration. However, in February, the motion failed from the Housing, Land Use, and Transportation committee.

RELATED: Tampa tenants protest, demand council put rent control on ballot

A measure on the ballot would still likely face legal challenges under Florida state law. However, proponents are adamant it's needed given the skyrocketing rates of rent throughout the last couple of years. 

However, critics argue the city may open itself to legal challenges, which could be costly. In addition, it would hinder development when supply is needed. 

Local governments can approve a rent control ordinance, however, they must prove there is "a housing emergency so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public," said Dr. Ned Murray, a leading expert on economic and housing market issues at Florida International University.  

Murray said city leaders would have to defend their evidence of an emergency in court if a plaintiff, like a landlord, challenged it. 

Last week, Tampa City Council rejected a motion to adopt a draft ordinance on a housing emergency declaration and rent control on the November ballot. 

This past Tuesday, Orange County Commissioners voted to move forward with plans to put a rent control measure in place this fall. 

RELATED: Protestors sleep outside St. Pete City Hall to draw rising rent awareness

RELATED: Rising rent forces woman to verge of homelessness

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