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All within one 30-mile radius in Florida
Welcome to a Sunday edition of Progress Report.
For all the effort put into extrapolating what last week’s events in Kansas mean for the midterm elections, it was a whirlwind 24 hours on the Gulf Coast of Florida that provided perhaps the most comprehensive preview of the battles to come this fall. Instead of an intense focus on one (very important) issue, the Gulf Coast drama offered a glimpse at the entirety of the American political spectrum, the different ways in which its factions approach the pursuit of power, and the issues that they’re seeking to elevate come November.
It began on Wednesday night, when the St. Petersburg Tenant’s Union held an overnight protest at the steps of city hall in advance of a council meeting scheduled for Thursday. They were once again rallying to demand that the city place a rent control measure on the November ballot, which suddenly looked like a possibility after being shot down by the city council’s housing committee back in March.
On Thursday morning, local attention was wrenched away by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who showed up in neighboring Hillsborough County for his weekly fascist flex for the Fox News cameras (as is often the case, they got the big national exclusive). Flanked by a small army of cranky old cops, DeSantis announced that he’d suspended Andrew Warren, Hillsborough’s democratically elected state’s attorney, and installed a conservative loyalist in his stead.
Warren’s great transgression? In June, Warren joined more than 90 other prosecutors in signing a pledge to not criminalize reproductive health decisions or pursue charges against people that receive, perform, or support abortion care. He had previously signed a letter that admonished Republican officials for trying to criminalize and ban trans health care. Both statements were prepared by a group called Fair and Just Prosecution, which by name alone is antithetical to DeSantis’s worldview.
Having seen crimson red Kansas broadly reject a harsh anti-abortion amendment, DeSantis’s announcement on Thursday sought to frame his decision to suspend Warren as a matter of upholding law and order, not anti-choice politics. His sheriffs practically spit as they recalled the 1970s and beat up on cities like New York and San Francisco, an attempt to both satisfy the far-right on abortion while sounding the racial and cultural dog whistles that have proven so effective in Florida of late.
This is more comfortable terrain for conservatives, even if it’s disingenuous in this case — DeSantis’s abortion ban was just recently allowed to take effect while it winds through a state legal system that has consistently ruled that the Florida constitution’s right to privacy explicitly protects abortion.
DeSantis’s hand-picked state Supreme Court may wind up overturning that precedent and allowing the abortion ban to stay in place, but enforcing one particular law wasn’t the point of this convention of people aggrieved that their residual checks from Cops re-runs have run out. The real aim was for DeSantis to further impose his will on people that did not vote for him — Hillsborough is a blue county — and funnel the abortion issue, which is not a good one for him, into his fascist law and order framework.
Once he stomped off the stage, the Gulf Coast’s political focus returned to the work of housing activists in the area, who had quite a day ahead of them.
In today’s edition of Progress Report, our newest contributor, Florida journalist McKenna Schueler, takes us inside the roller coaster week for grassroots activists, politicians, and community members in Tampa and St. Petersburg — and what it means for both housing affordability and politics going forward.
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by McKenna Schueler
Just one week after city council in Tampa advanced a push to get rent control on the ballot for this year’s general election, the activist-backed proposal to cap rent increases in a city that’s seen a 22.4% spike in median average rent over the past year was unceremoniously killed — at least for now.
It was a nearly 180-degree about face. After members voted 6–1 to move forward with the initiative at the end of July, the rent control measure — intended to help temporarily stave off eviction, displacement, and risk of homelessness for one year — received only two votes of confidence.
Those votes came from council’s newest member, Lynn Hurtak, who is the only woman on council, and Orlando Gudes, the only Black man on council. Gudes’s district covers some of Tampa’s poorest neighborhoods.
After the vote yesterday, Gudes shared his dismay in a Facebook post, declaring that he wants to see rent control put on the ballot next March, so as to “let the people decide.”
And that was really the basic ask: Let the people decide.
“Despite overwhelming support for rent control and a housing crisis with no end in sight, Tampa City Council sided with greedy landlords and developers today,” the Tampa Tenants Union, a grassroots organization formed last year, wrote on social media after the vote. “TTU demands that rent control be put on the ballot via resolution, so the people can decide their fate!”
The Lowdown on Rent Control in Tampa
Activists in Tampa have been fighting for rent control — or, some form of rent stabilization measure — for months, in addition to other housing policies such as the creation of a tenants’ advocacy office (which is in the works, sort of), stronger notice requirements for rent increases and a ban on source of income discrimination (both passed, as part of a tenant’s bill of rights ordinance in March), and guaranteed legal counsel at no cost for renters at risk of eviction (an organizing effort in-progress).
But rent control is its own monster — if you ask landlords and private developers, that is.
Rent stabilization in Florida, like in most states, is preempted by Florida statutes. But, that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible ask. Under Florida law, local governments, with majority support of voters, have the power to put rent stabilization policies in place for one year at a time.
How it works: First, the governing body (e.g. City Council) must declare a state of emergency. Then, it is required to craft an ordinance that sets out the basis for declaring a housing crisis. Only then can it place a referendum on the ballot for voters of that jurisdiction to approve.
That’s what democracy looks like, right? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than headlines on rent control might lead you to believe, and more arduous for working people seeking to afford shelter.
There are several procedural hurdles within those main steps. And that’s where Tampa got stuck. Tampa City Council already shot down rent control once earlier this year, largely spooked by concerns brought forward by local landlords — mobilized by the real estate industry — and the city administration.
They warned of the cost of potential litigation, and a lot of unknowns concerning the potential economic impact, citing a lack of recent precedent for rent controls in Florida. Progress Report has covered this battle throughout the past five months, anticipating the intensity of this moment.
The refusal by city leaders in February to entertain the measure — which has already been implemented in parts of California, New York City, Oregon, New Jersey, and in parts of Europe — changed.
Orange County — in the Orlando area, also suffering from skyrocketing unaffordability — is now eyeing rent control. Prior to Thursday, there was indication that St. Petersburg — not 30 miles away from Tampa — was also warming up to the idea (if at least because activists weren’t, and aren’t, letting up on the demand — more on that later).
In the meantime, the city of Tampa — whose mayor, a former police chief, has said she believes rent control would “kill development” — has taken smaller steps to deal with the soaring cost of rent. Emphasis on smaller:
Created a housing assistance hotline.
Agreed to draft up a plan for a tenant advocacy office, similar to one in Miami.
Has OKed “affordable housing” projects.
Has offered up a paltry $5.5 million in general funds from this upcoming fiscal year’s $1.9 billion budget, and $20 million overall, for housing-related services.
Invested $750,000 into “Tampa Hope,” a community shelter for homeless residents that’s run by a faith-based group that also runs several local crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) — Not kidding.
But rents are still up. Affordability is down. So, following months of consistent mobilization efforts by activists with Florida Rising, a local tenants union, and other activist groups, Tampa City Council brought forth a new motion on July 28, in a surprising turn of events, for declaring a housing state of emergency, with an eye on getting rent control language on the ballot.
That motion passed 6-1, with a single dissenter. “This is not the way to do it,” Bill Carlson, the “no” vote, told his colleagues in late July. “When thousands of people are pushed out because landlords are doubling or tripling rates, I don't want to say I told you so, but I will cry along with you.”
A week later, after getting a draft ordinance crafted by the city’s legal team for approval, four of those former ‘Yes’ votes reversed course. Council voted 4-2 (with Carlson absent), effectively tabling the rent control measure.
“It was David versus Goliath,” Robin Lockett, regional director of Florida Rising, who has mobilized dozens of community members to show up to city meetings and share their personal connection to the housing crisis, told Progress Report on Friday. “Money talks, bull-crap walks.”
Profit over People
While advocates for rent control made an impressive show on Thursday, with impassioned pleas during public comment, local landlords and realtors also swarmed the meeting, evidently terrified of a threat to their own bottom line. “They didn’t pay attention prior to that [first vote on rent control],” Lockett said. But after that, “they started making phone calls.”
Then, the city administration — which is currently under federal investigation for a former Tampa Police Department program’s potential violation of the Fair Housing Act — had its own list of talking points prepared to convince council to vote no.
The city’s Administrator of Development and Economic Opportunity, appointed to her position earlier this year, told the council point-blank she believed rent control was “bad policy” and would disproportionately and adversely affect Tampa’s residents of color.
“If it does pass, you can guarantee that landlords are going to hike their rents,” Nicole Travis, who is Black, told the council. “The people that are most affected by that are mostly people of color, and the poorest people in our community.”
Lockett of Florida Rising, who is also Black, called bullshit. “Whenever they [the city] want to make a point, they always want to talk about how it would adversely affect poor and black people. Shoot, everybody is suffering from it,” Lockett said, admitting she likes Travis but was frustrated by the talking point. “Poor people are affected by this more,” Lockett said, “but this situation is affecting everybody.”
The ordinance drafted by the city’s attorneys was also watered down from the original motion put forward a week prior. The specific call to cap rent increases at 5% was removed; a whole laundry list of exceptions were added.
Gudes, the council member who motioned for the housing state of emergency, told city staff, “All you did was open up a can of worms,” visibly frustrated with legal’s presentation.
Luis Viera, another council member, said he wanted to see a study that could look into the potential ramifications of implementing a one-year rent stabilization measure, calling for more time.
A Tale of Two Cities
Yet, the timing of this vote couldn’t be worse. Just hours before on that same day, city leaders in St. Petersburg, Florida — right across the bay — advanced their own proposal to get rent control on the ballot.
This followed an emergency sleep-in staged by activists a night before, and a mass show of support during public comment, despite the council hearing the same anti-rent control talking points that Tampa’s did from their own legal staff.
It will kill (or disincentivize) development.
It is only a short-term fix.
This will open the city up to lawsuits.
We need to study this further, to demonstrate the need.
As one member of the St. Pete City Council said on Thursday, “I don’t need a study to tell me we are in a crisis,” one member of St. Pete City Council said on Thursday.
Unlike Tampa City Council, St. Petersburg has a democratic socialist on council, Richie Floyd, a strong advocate for housing issues. Last year, Floyd became Florida’s first open socialist elected to office in over a century — and previously (unsuccessfully) pushed for rent control earlier this year.
But the housing crisis in St. Petersburg is also growing worse. On Thursday, he and two of his colleagues spoke passionately in favor of advancing temporary rent stabilization. “I’m trying to be tactful here, but honestly I’m sick of living in a world where we don’t respect people who need help the most,” Floyd, an active member of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, said.
Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who revived rent control talks on council said, “My reality is, drastic change calls for drastic measures.”
Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, another council member, cried as she spoke. “How can I sit up here and not vote for this, knowing that the individuals that I represent in St. Pete are sleeping outside, or are about to be homeless? I would be ashamed of myself.”
The fight in St. Pete, however, isn’t over. Like in Tampa, council still needs to vote again to place rent control on the ballot — and that vote isn’t certain. St. Pete City Council voted 4–3 in favor on Thursday, with one member (likely another “no” vote) absent.
Legal threats from the state and lobbyists for wealthy landlord loom. It would be a political victory to draw them into the fight, but it would not necessarily lead to passing policy. If nothing else, continued pursuit of the ballot initiative could open up the doors to other opportunities to create more affordable housing without handing millions to for-profit developers.
Meanwhile, rent control advocates in Tampa say the fight to stabilize rents isn’t over either. Even Viera, who voted against the ordinance on Thursday, said he “hopes” a different version of the ordinance will make it onto the ballot in March.
“We’ll still be going down to City Hall,” Lockett of Florida Rising, told Progress Report. “We’re going to still hold them accountable.”
Progress Report sought comment via email from all four Tampa City Council members who voted against the housing state of emergency on Thursday. None responded in time for publication.
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