St. Paul mayor resists taking a position on rent control ballot question

By: - September 15, 2021 9:54 am

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaks at a news conference on April 19, 2021, as the jury begins deliberations in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is declining to say where he stands on a citizen-led rent control proposal, which if passed, would be one of the most stringent rent control regulations in the country, limiting increases to 3% per year across all properties in the city.

Asked for an interview on the proposal and how he would vote, Carter replied through a spokesman saying the city cannot advocate for or against the ballot initiative.

“We are working to explore how this measure would be implemented if Saint Paul residents vote to adopt it and remain committed to continuing our work to address the housing crisis in our community,” spokesman Peter Leggett wrote in an email.

While it’s true city leaders may not use public resources to promote political campaigns, they are free to speak their minds on ballot initiatives. St. Paul Councilmember Mitra Jalali has been vocal about her support of the initiative and even gone door-knocking with the campaign in her free time.

“I support rent stabilization. I see this as a missing piece in the big picture of the range of strategies we need to pursue,” Jalali said, noting that the city has also taken steps to encourage more development by providing subsidies and eliminating off-street parking minimums.

While progressive leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul have focused on increasing supply in recent years, they have turned their attention to rent control as a last resort to address rising rents. Jalali and other rent control advocates point to the fact that nearly half of renter households in Minnesota spend more than 30% of their income on rent, with an even greater share of Black, Latino and Native households paying more than they can afford on housing each month.

Rent control is a politically complex issue for Carter. He risks alienating his most progressive allies if he comes out against it.

Supporting the proposal could also cost him crucial support among landlords and housing developers, who warn rent control will slow construction in a city desperate for more housing and would lead landlords to forego repairs or convert their properties to condos.

Carter’s silence also underscores the unusual nature of this citizen-led policy initiative, requiring no discussion and little involvement of city leaders.

That’s partly due to state law, which only allows rent control policies to be enacted if approved by a majority of voters in a general election.

So renter activists have had to take their campaign directly to voters. A coalition of housing advocacy groups under the name Housing Equity Now Saint Paul wrote the policy and collected some 5,500 valid signatures to get it on the ballot in the fall.

When the city council approved the ballot language last month, they did so unanimously without discussion since their role was simply to rubber stamp how the ballot question was phrased.

“It hasn’t really been an issue that we’ve been discussing much,” said Councilmember Rebecca Noecker, who said she hasn’t decided yet how she’ll vote on the measure.

“I plan to do my research as a citizen, since you know, I have no more voice on this than anybody,” Noecker said.

Enacting city laws through citizen-led ballot initiatives in St. Paul is rare, and no members of the current City Council have experience enacting an ordinance that’s been written and passed by voters. If approved, the ordinance must be enacted within six months.

Two years ago voters did consider a citizen-led effort to reverse the city’s move to organized trash collection from a previous system in which residents contracted with trash haulers independently. Voters ultimately rejected the effort to override the council.

Rent stabilization doesn’t have the support of everyone on the council. Councilmember Chris Tolbert said he thinks the policy would reduce the supply of affordable housing. He favors focusing on development and increasing public subsidies for renters.

“I think (this policy) comes from a good place, and there is a housing crisis. I don’t believe this is the right way to go about producing or protecting affordable housing,” said Tolbert, who also chairs the city’s Housing Redevelopment Authority.

Councilmembers Dai Thao, Amy Brendmoen, Nelsie Yang and Jane Prince did not return calls for comment.

The rent stabilization policy would be one of the most consequential housing policies in a city where a majority of residents are now renters. It would also be one of the country’s most far-reaching rent regulations.

Unlike other cities and states that have passed rent control laws, St. Paul’s policy offers no exemption to new development. Developers and some housing experts say that’s sure to slow development, hamstringing the city’s efforts to increase supply amid a persisting housing shortage. Advocates counter that the policy doesn’t limit what landlords can set rents at, just how much they can increase them year over year.

The St. Paul policy also doesn’t allow landlords to increase rents beyond 3% after a tenant moves out — called “vacancy decontrol.”

A third unique feature of the proposal being considered by St. Paul voters is the fixed 3% annual increase limit. Virtually all other rent stabilization policies are tied to a local rate of inflation, to account for the possibility that the costs of operating rental properties may increase faster or slower from year to year.

Advocates who drafted the policy based their decision on a study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, whose director supports rent control. They found the median rent increase in Minneapolis hasn’t exceeded 3% over the past 20 years.

The policy would allow landlords to appeal to the city to raise rents beyond 3% in any given year for specific reasons such as a hike in property taxes or the need to make improvements to keep the property up to code.

The specifics of how the city would hear appeals and enforce the ordinance are yet to be determined by the City Council, which may need to hire additional staff to administer the policy.

In Minneapolis, where the mayor is opposed to rent control, residents will also vote this fall on a rent stabilization question, albeit one without specific policy details. Unlike St. Paul, Minneapolis doesn’t allow for ordinances to be passed through citizen-led petitions.

Minneapolis voters will be asked if the City Council should be able to draft and enact a rent control policy. Whatever the specific policy ends up being may go back to voters again in 2022 for ratification to fend off potential legal challenges, since state law forbids cities from enacting rent control unless approved by a majority of voters in a general election.

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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.