This is why we need to defend a strong rent stabilization policy

September 6, 2022 6:00 am

Renters and activists urged the St. Paul City Council not to exempt affordable housing from the city’s rent control policy during a public hearing on Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

We called it the Field of Dreams. Near our apartment in Dayton’s Bluff, there was an empty lot that my partner and I walked through occasionally, finding small abandoned treasures left in the grass. When Dominium bought that land and started building affordable housing, we truly thought it was a dream come true. 

After 12 years in an affordable but bare-bones converted carriage house, the aging roof caved in and — with housing costs skyrocketing regionwide — my partner and I couldn’t find housing we could pay for on our modest incomes. The moment our names came up on the waiting list for Dominium’s new Cambric Apartments in 2018, we were overcome with joy.

Almost overnight, the dream turned into a nightmare. Over the past four years alone, Dominium — a massive, Minnesota-based corporation whose business model relies on taking advantage of federal tax credits for affordable housing — has spiked our rent by more than 30%, including unpredictable mid-lease increases and a staggering $117 jump at the height of the pandemic. 

For years, I sought guidance from legal advocates, met repeatedly with my City Council member, and called state leaders, but everyone said the same thing: Dominium’s behavior is entirely legal. 

That’s why I was relieved by the community-wide movement for rent stabilization in St. Paul last year. I had watched one too many of my senior neighbors get pushed out of our “affordable” housing to live in their cars. With the passage of the nation’s strongest rent stabilization policy — capping annual rent increases at 3% — I finally had some peace of mind knowing I could budget and plan around stable housing for years to come.

That vote has already made a big difference in my life — and that of my neighbors. While Dominium recently raised our rents  8% — through a “self-certification” process that lets landlords exceed the 3% cap — Dominium renters in other cities saw their rents increase by more than 12%. The rent stabilization ordinance also gave us an avenue to appeal these rent hikes. 

It has helped keep us in our homes and given us a way to come together and fight back against corporate greed. 

It’s no surprise that a few city leaders want to compromise our policy to rig the rules for predatory landlords.  We knew this fight was coming after the state and national landlord lobby poured more than $4 million into a misinformation campaign last year. But with hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours out in the community talking to our neighbors, we made sure St. Paul voters understood our power to create reasonable rules for property owners and stem the epidemic of economic displacement.

After our initiative passed resoundingly at the polls — with more than 30,000 votes, winning six of St. Paul’s seven wards — the mayor stacked a 41-member stakeholder group with property owners and developers to water down the ordinance before it even went into effect. 

Along with other tenants and advocates, I made sure our voices were heard in that room and, even though we were drastically outnumbered, many important components of our policy were maintained in the group’s recommendations — including the 3% cap on annual rent increases. 

Over the past few weeks, Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Member Chris Tolbert have authored an ordinance that gestures at the stakeholder group’s best recommendations, and runs with the worst. 

The good in their proposal is presently outweighed by blanket exemptions for affordable housing and newly constructed rental properties less than 20 years old. Excluding affordable housing from rent stabilization would remove protections for nearly 20,000 St. Paul renters, including myself and my neighbors, who are disproportionately low-income, BIPOC, disabled, immigrant and elderly — the people who need protections most. 

The council should reject these proposals when they make their final vote on Ordinance 22-37. 

Dominium has created a revolving door for working class households, confident in a never-ending supply of renters who need affordable housing. These exemptions will allow landlords like Dominium to spin the door harder and faster, further entrenching racial inequities in our beloved city. 

Despite the maintenance issues and the false advertising, this place is my home. It’s where I manage a community garden that provides food for our building, and break bread with my neighbors. I am deeply committed to my community — and this grassroots movement to make sure everyone in St. Paul, whether they rent or own, has a home they can rely on. 

Editor’s note. The Reformer reached out to Dominium for comment and received this reply: “We recognize that our renters are struggling during these challenging times. Dominium’s properties remain significantly more affordable than comparable properties. For example, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment at our River North location will be $1,506 after the increase, compared to $2,169 per month for similar properties in the Coon Rapids area. As the demand for moderate and low-income housing continues to rise, increasing the housing supply with rents guaranteed at below market rates remains one of the most effective ways of keeping housing costs down.”

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Katherine Banbury
Katherine Banbury

Katherine Banbury is a classical Yoga teacher and plant-based personal chef who has worked to ensure everyone has a shot at enjoying the best possible health and wellness, including a safe and stable home. She is a Dominium renter in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood in St. Paul.