St. Paul proposes 5 new ordinances to protect renters

mitra jalali
St. Paul Councilmember Mitra Jalali announces rental protection proposals at a press conference on March 4, 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

St. Paul aims to pass renter protections this year, including capping security deposits to one month’s rent, shielding renters with bad credit or old evictions and temporarily freezing rent increases after a property is sold.

Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher and Councilmember Mitra Jalali announced the agenda — called Stable, Accessible, Fair and Equitable (S.A.F.E.) Housing St. Paul — on Wednesday, calling it an essential move to help tenants amid rising rents and a nationwide housing shortage.

“Housing is a basic human right,” Jalali said. “We’ve undertaken significant city efforts to produce and preserve more housing . . . and I see these comprehensive tenant protections as part of addressing rising displacement concerns in St. Paul as equally important.”

Fifty-one percent of St. Paul residents are now renters, and the city council is increasingly sympathetic to their perspective. Jalali, a renter herself, ran on a platform focused on increasing affordable housing and renter protections.

Some landlords, however, say the ordinances go too far and would drive up compliance costs, which could wind up pushing rents still higher.

Sandy Moua rents out nine units across St. Paul with her partner. She says she typically charges renters one month’s rent security deposit. But when an applicant has prior evictions or a poor credit report, they charge two months’ rent.

“It’s a risk assessment,” Moua said.

Minneapolis passed similar renter protections, which go into effect later this year. Landlords won’t be allowed to collect more than one month’s rent for a security deposit and won’t be allowed to screen out renters with old criminal activity or evictions. Suburban governments across the Twin Cities have also begun passing renter-friendly laws.

St. Paul’s “S.A.F.E. Homes” agenda also includes what would be a first-in-the-state law requiring landlords to have “just cause” to not renew a renter’s lease. Currently, landlords can choose not to renew a tenant’s lease for any reason — or no reason at all.

Many renters are on month-to-month leases, and renter advocates say landlords are able to informally evict renters for things that may be undesirable, but perfectly legal. Landlords might refuse to renew a lease of a renter who asks for repairs or has parties, for instance.

“This would prevent those unilateral interactions from happening to folks,” Jalali said.

The city has defined a list of acceptable reasons for landlords not to renew a lease, like if the landlord wants to move into the unit or rent it to a family member. Landlords could also choose not to renew a lease if they decide to renovate the unit or the tenant is habitually late on rent.

Landlords would also still be able to raise rents beyond what tenants could afford.

In cases where a property is sold and the new owners choose to not renew a lease, city leaders hope to buy tenants extra time by requiring property owners to provide the city and renters with 90 days notice before a sale and a 90 day protection period after the sale when rent cannot be raised.

In a rental market hovering around 2% — housing economists say a healthy vacancy rate is closer to 5% — this time would be a valuable resource, especially for lower income renters and people with less-than-stellar rental history.

Patricia James, a community advocate who attended the press conference, says a non-renewal sent her down a path to becoming homeless in 2005. All she really needed, she said, was more time.

She was renting a house in St. Paul for her and her four children when the owner sold it.

“The new owner requested that I move,” James said. “I was given seven days.”

Application fees devoured her limited income as she rushed to find a new place, but she was unsuccessful. She sought the help of the Urban League, which helped broker a deal with the previous owner to rent her another, more expensive, property. But she struggled to keep up with the higher rent at the new place and eventually was evicted.

“We had nowhere to go,” James said. “We had to roll up things in sheets, blankets, garbage bags…. We could not take all of our items (so) things were left on the porch.”

James said she became depressed. Her children’s schooling suffered. But eventually, she was able to get back on her feet and now works as an advocate helping others facing homelessness or housing instability and people coming out of prison. She says the proposed renter protections would help people stay above water.

“Families can become stable,” James said. “Because when you’re stable, it just makes you healthier.” She said in her experience stable families are less likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Mousa, the St. Paul landlord, said the proposed ordinances would threaten the success of her small business. She said she recently had to evict a tenant for repeatedly smoking and having someone live in the unit who was not on the lease. She collected two months’ rent for a security deposit, but even that won’t be enough to cover the cleaning costs.

“I had to get the carpet shampooed five times to get the smoke out,” Moua said. She said an apartment that can’t be leased can wipe out profit, which is her main source of income.

Moua says she takes a holistic approach when screening tenants. She tries to understand why someone’s credit score is low, like if the person has medical debt. And she said she looks past non-violent crimes.

“We recognize the challenges that people face,” Moua said. “I am Hmong. I grew up poor. We are refugees.” But she added that a formal eviction on a person’s record is likely a symptom of a larger problem.

Moua said ordinances restricting how she can screen for tenants and limiting what she collects for security deposits will put her at risk of substantial financial losses.

The package of renter protections gets its first hearing next week. City leaders hope to pass the ordinances this spring so they can take effect in January 2021.

Housing advocates say these five ordinances — the security deposit limit, tenant screening guidelines, just cause notice, advance notice of sale, and requiring landlords to distribute a packet outlining tenants’ rights and responsibilities — will shift the balances of power, a little bit, toward tenants.

“Community organizations, housing advocates (and) legal organizations have been talking about these issues for a very long time,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center. “So this is an incredibly important moment.”