Reformer Radio, rent control and zoning issues: 2021 in review

By: - December 30, 2021 7:00 am

A recently sold home in St. Paul in June 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

This year was both incredibly challenging and rewarding. I started a podcast that brought our reporting to your ears. I helped cover two criminal trials of police officers and the issues at the center of a critical, off-year election for the Twin Cities and the state. And I continued digging into housing and labor issues across Minnesota.

Here are three stories I wanted to revisit from this past year with an eye toward how they will play out in 2022.

Reformer Radio 

Nora Clark helps her client, Scott Semo, shave. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

I launched our podcast, Reformer Radio, in May with the goal of going deep with people at the center of important stories across Minnesota. Across 18 episodes in our first season, I interviewed people ranging from the governor to an oil refinery worker to a former public defender-turned-county attorney candidate to my fellow reporters.

One episode that was particularly moving for me centered on two women doing the grueling, low-paid work of home care. Long before the so-called Great Resignation, the home care industry has struggled with high turnover and an extreme labor shortage.

Minnesota can’t fill thousands of job vacancies for home care workers — the people who help the state’s disabled and growing elderly population bathe, get dressed, eat, exercise and otherwise enjoy dignified lives.

Few people are willing or able to do this work — with high rates of workplace injury — for less than $15 an hour with no benefits and often irregular hours.

Nora Clark, who is featured in the episode, is an exception. She found her calling as a personal care aide but at great personal expense. She works 68 hours a week — without overtime pay — caring for a man with severe disabilities and her elderly brother. She’d like to work less, but she can’t afford to.

The lack of reliable care workers like Clark is sending ripple effects in the broader labor force as people increasingly need to quit their jobs to take care of their loved ones. Kerry Adelmann, the other woman featured in the story, left a six-figure job to be her son’s personal care aide after a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed and brain damaged. The alternative would be to put him in a nursing home, which would likely be struggling with its own shortage of workers.

The lack of home care workers is only going to become a larger problem for Minnesota as the state’s population ages.

Rent Control 

Emily Lynch leans on a truck outside the house she rents in St. Paul. Her rent is going up $400 next year. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Few people could have predicted at the beginning of this year that St. Paul voters would easily pass one of the most stringent rent control policies in the country. Rent control activists only launched their campaign at the end of March but by June had gathered enough signatures for a referendum. In November, 53% of voters approved capping annual rent increases at 3% for all units across the city.

The Keep St. Paul Home campaign was wildly outspent by opponents to rent control led by landlords and realtors. Rent control activists raised about $200,000 compared to around $4 million raised by opponents.

I went deep on the proposal in St. Paul, digging into the reasons why rent control is such a popular idea as well as the fears from economists and even some progressives that the policy will backfire by reducing new construction amid a housing shortage.

Minneapolis voters also approved a rent control ballot initiative by a similar margin that authorizes the council to enact a policy, which will likely be far less strict than the one passed in St. Paul given the mayor’s position and makeup of the council.

Hanging over these victories for rent control advocates, however, is opposition from Republicans at the state level. After Minneapolis council members announced they were interested in pursuing rent stabilization, Senate Republicans introduced legislation that would ban cities from enacting rent control. Currently, cities are prohibited from enacting rent control unless approved by voters in a general election.

While state lawmakers were unsuccessful this year in passing an outright ban on rent control, they will likely try again and could be successful, depending on how well Republicans do in the 2022 elections.


An aerial view of Cottage Grove circa 1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Local zoning laws are often overlooked but critically important to two pressing issues for Minnesota: how much new housing is built and how affordable that housing is.

To understand the stakes, it’s worth revisiting a conversation I had with Libby Starling of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis for one episode of Reformer Radio about the declining rate of homeownership in the Twin Cities. She clearly lays out how we got to what she calls a “crisis point” in the low supply of affordable homes, which includes restrictive zoning laws in cities across the metro area that drive up housing costs.

What’s fascinating about zoning is the politics don’t split along the usual fault lines of small-government Republicans versus big-government Democrats, as illustrated by this piece I did in August. I went to a bipartisan photo op, where Republican and Democratic state lawmakers came together to work on a Habitat for Humanity project, and asked them about how to increase housing affordability through zoning.

Zoning pits local control against anti-regulation ideals which leads to seemingly contradictory views from some lawmakers, like Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines, who says he’s a “free market guy” but also that local governments should be able to dictate what gets built.

Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, has come up with a proposal he plans to introduce during next year’s legislative session to reform restrictive zoning laws and other housing regulations across the metro to boost construction. It’s popular with builders even though there are provisions they don’t like. But it will face resistance from city officials, who want to maintain the right to mandate all houses be built on large lots, like Oak Grove, where the smallest a lot can be is two acres.

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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.