Minneapolis council committee votes to put rent control questions on ballot

By: - July 21, 2021 5:10 pm

The downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota skyline at sunrise, as seen from the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River on August 13, 2019. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of putting two rent control questions before voters in November, moving the city closer to enacting one of the most aggressive approaches to addressing housing affordability amid an ongoing housing shortage.

The Policy and Government Oversight Committee, which includes all council members, on Wednesday also moved forward a ballot question drafted by a citizen group to replace the police department.

They decided to delay approving another ballot question drafted by the city’s Charter Commission — which oversees the city’s charter — that would give the mayor more power. They asked the city attorney’s office to make small revisions. For these two questions — about the future of the police department and the mayor’s authority — the council can only approve the language of each but not alter the substance. If both ballot measures are approved, the city would be forced to grapple with contradictory directives from voters.

If the rent control questions are approved by voters, neither would enact a specific rent control policy. Rather, they determine who can write a rent control policy and who can approve it.

The first question would allow citizen groups to write rent stabilization policies and petition to put them before voters as a ballot initiative, with voters having to decide as soon as November 2022 on a specific policy.

The second question would allow the city council to write a rent stabilization policy and either pass it on their own or put it before voters in 2022 or later.

If both are approved, the city would have multiple avenues to pursue a rent control policy, possibly speeding up how quickly rent control could be enacted in the city.

The council voted 11-2 in favor of using the language it passed in February, rejecting recommendations made by the city’s Charter Commission. The mayor — who has expressed reservations about rent control — could veto the move, which the council could override with nine votes.

Council Member Linea Palmisano, who voted against the council language with Lisa Goodman, pushed instead for passing the rent stabilization language proposed by the Charter Commission. She brought that to a vote, which failed 11-3, with Goodman and Kevin Reich voting in favor.

Earlier this month, the Charter Commission voted overwhelmingly against the proposal that would allow citizens to write a rent stabilization policy and petition to put it on the ballot, arguing it could result in a poorly constructed law and noted the city charter cannot be amended by petition on any other issue.

The commission sent back the second question — giving the council the power to craft a rent control policy — with two significant revisions. First, the policy would have to be approved by voters, meaning the council could not pass it on its own with a majority vote. Second, the policy would have to be approved by more than 51% of voters rather than a simple majority.

No Minnesota cities have rent control, but they’re allowed to enact rent control if approved by voters in a general election. Language in state law is ambiguous as to whether voters must approve specific policy proposals or if they can simply authorize city leaders to craft a law, and the city attorney’s office has advised the council to put any proposal before voters in a general election to fend off possible legal challenges.

Palmisano argued the council should trust the legal expertise of the Charter Commission and the city attorney, which agreed with the Charter Commission and recommended the City Council move forward with their alternative.

“The Charter Commission’s rationale here is sound,” Palmisano said. “They spent a long time analyzing this and they did give us a substitute that no matter how they felt about the proposal themselves, they felt this was the appropriate way to proceed.”

Council President Lisa Bender, who co-authored the ballot questions with council members Jeremiah Ellison and Cam Gordan, said the Charter Commission’s recommendations would make implementing rent control burdensome, saying her constituents need the city to act as quickly as possible.

“I respect the expertise of the city staff and the members of the Charter Commission who have law degrees and have done their legal analysis. I also respect the experience and wisdom of my constituents who know what it’s like to live in a city where the rules are not written for them,” Bender said. “We cannot adhere to the status quo that leaves our neighbors homeless.”

The council has passed a slew of policies in recent years aimed at increasing the supply of affordable housing, such as eliminating parking requirements, requiring developers to include affordable units in projects with more than 20 units and allowing up to three units to be built on lots that were previously restricted to single family homes.

Those efforts have aided a building boom that’s led to average rents decreasing in the city for the first time in years even as home prices continue to soar.

The council has also moved to protect renters by capping security deposits at one month’s rent, requiring landlords to notify tenants before filing evictions and prohibiting landlords from considering criminal convictions and evictions in reviewing tenant applications.

Following news that Minneapolis would consider putting the question before voters, Senate Republicans in the state Legislature pushed a proposal to close what they called a “loophole” in the state law and prohibit any form of rent control. They later dropped the proposal in negotiations over ending the state’s eviction moratorium.

A study conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and presented to the Minneapolis City Council on Tuesday disputed the concern raised by opponents that rent control would inhibit development or reduce the quality of housing but did say apartments may be converted into condominiums, reducing supply amid a shortage.

St. Paul voters will decide on a citizen-led petition that would cap rent increases at 3% per year for all buildings. A citizen group on the other side of the river, Minneapolis United for Rent Control, is pushing for a similar proposal, which could make it to the 2022 ballot if voters approve the first question allowing citizen-led petitions on rent control.

In California, which instituted rent stabilization last year, landlords may increase rent up to 5% plus the local rate of inflation. In Oregon, which approved rent stabilization in 2019, landlords are limited to raising rent no more than 7% per year plus the rate of inflation.

* This story has been updated to reflect that Council Members Linea Palmisano and Lisa Goodman and the city attorney supported the Charter Commission’s rent stabilization proposal. It has been corrected to reflect the City Council is expected to review final ballot language on Aug. 4. 

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Max Nesterak
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.

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