How to solve the rent control controversy: A heap of legalese | Opinion

April 11, 2022 6:06 am

Photo illustration of St. Paul rent control draft rules. Getty Images.

The city of St. Paul is proposing rules in an attempt to clarify its voter-approved rent control ordinance. The ordinance — already subject to inflamed tensions — surely merits a healthy dose of legalese embedded in the proposed rules, which are open to public comment from April 7 through April 22.

And the rules sure do deliver. 

With all legal drafting, the public expects — and even demands — legalese.

The intrepid reporters at this publication can’t be considered reporters if they are spared the unenviable task of sifting through legalese and translating it for their readers.

And regulated parties want legalese. Look no further than the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which as quoted in the Star Tribune said the following on the proposed rules: “These draft rules are extensive and complicated. It will take some time to analyze. . . .” Music to regulators’ ears.

Room for improvement

But as currently drafted, the rules demand improvement. Here are some quick tips to ensure enough legalese for everyone.

  1. There isn’t enough underlining. We need more underlining to weaken readability and harken back to the typewriter days.
  2. More words without proper spacing, such as reducedrent and expenseschanged.
  3. Random Capitalizing to throw People off.
  4. More long, unmarked paragraphs and less headings. Don’t let people know where to find relevant information.
  5. A helpful watermark in the middle of the page that says “Draft.”
  6. The ambiguous “and/or” construction.
  7. More uses of pursuant to, in order to, and other legalese.
  8. Much more initialisms. Don’t stop at PMMS or the MNOI.
  9. Including both a spelled-out and numerical value. When you have five percent (5%), you can later change the numerical value so people don’t know which number is correct. Keeps them guessing, especially when it comes to insignificant rental rates in a rental ordinance.
  10. And last, an astronomical increase in shall. There are only 59 shalls, most of them of the helpful shall be variety, in which the false future is used: “It shall be presumed” versus “It is presumed.” More shalls, please.

If the underlying language of the proposed rules weren’t complicated enough, the city should go further and follow these tips to guarantee utter gobbledygook.

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Ian Lewenstein
Ian Lewenstein

Ian Lewenstein has worked for the Minnesota Legislature and several state agencies. He specializes in administrative rulemaking and plain language. His comments represent his views alone.