St. Paul council passes strongest tenant protections in Minnesota

apartment building
An apartment building in St. Paul, Minnesota in February 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

The St. Paul City Council unanimously passed five new renter protections Wednesday, including capping security deposits, limiting background checks and prohibiting landlords from terminating leases without just cause, a first in the state.

Council Member Mitra Jalali connected the renter protections to the national reckoning taking place around racial inequality following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just over a month ago.

“Just as our Black neighbors experience violence in policing, they also experience the violence of displacement, of eviction, of housing discrimination,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali. “This housing agenda will insure stability for all St. Paul renters, especially the thousands of Black, brown, Asian, Latino, Indigenous and other working families of color.”

Just over half of St. Paul residents are renters, and many are struggling amid an affordable housing shortage — more than 500,000 Minnesota families pay more than one-third of their income in rent.

While much of the conversation around affordable housing centers on building more of it, housing advocates say renter protections are critical to ensuring housing stability and the benefits it confers.

Rent in St. Paul has increased more than 15% adjusted for inflation since 2000 while wages have stayed the same, according to a study by the Minnesota Housing Partnership. People of color are much more likely to be renters: 83% of Black households in St. Paul rent in compared to 41% of white households, according to the resolution.

Landlords big and small objected to the new laws  — called Stable, Accessible, Fair and Equitable (S.A.F.E.) Housing St. Paul — saying they would drive up their costs, which in turn would lead to higher rents.

St. Paul-based Real Estate Equities, which owns apartment buildings across the Midwest, sent a letter to the council voicing their concern over the just cause ordinance, saying it would “enable and protect individuals who engage in disruptive behaviors” and “fundamentally impair property managers from creating and maintaining a safe, peaceful, and well-maintained housing environment.”

The law does not prevent landlords from evicting tenants who break the terms of their leases.

The law, which takes effect on March 21, 2021, will deliver five protections: cap security deposits at one month’s rent; limit tenant screening criteria; forbid landlords from terminating leases without just cause; require landlords of affordable housing to give advance notice of sale; and require landlords to distribute a packet outlining tenants’ rights and responsibilities.

The laws largely block landlords from rejecting renters based on past criminal convictions, prior evictions or poor credit reports.

Landlords may reject renters who are registered sex offenders or who have been convicted of manufacturing or distributing drugs. Landlords may also reject tenants who have been convicted of misdemeanors within the past three years or felonies within the past 10 years, unless they are related to certain traffic offenses like driving without a license.

Renters may not be rejected because they have poor credit scores, although landlords may reject them if their credit reports show they failed to pay rent or utilities.

Landlords may not consider renters’ evictions older than three years and may not reject renters for not passing a certain income threshold, if they can show they successfully paid similar rent in the past.

The provision requiring just cause for eviction was one of the most contentious. Housing advocates say landlords retaliate against renters for things like asking for repairs or having parties by simply choosing not to renew their leases when they expire.

Under the new ordinance, landlords must renew a renter’s lease unless the renter hasn’t paid rent, is frequently late paying rent or broke significant terms of the lease. Landlords may also not renew a lease if they plan to renovate the unit or rent it out to a family member.

No other city currently has such a provision, including Minneapolis, which passed a suite of similar tenant protections that took effect in June.

The council also approved a measure mandating landlords of affordable housing — with rents affordable for people making 80% of the area-median income — notify the city and their renters of their intent to sell the property 90 days in advance. The law also stops new owners from raising the rent for 90 days after a property changes hands and requires landlords to pay for renters to relocate if they choose not to renew their leases during that time period.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.