The Potluck

St. Paul rent control advocates push back on ‘disaster narratives’ as developers rethink projects

By: - November 17, 2021 5:09 pm

Tram Hoang, campaign manager for Keep St. Paul Home, speaks at a press conference with elected officials and other supporters of the rent control ballot initiative. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith and courtesy of Housing Equity Now St. Paul.

Leaders of the successful campaign for rent control in St. Paul say developers and landlords are creating “disaster narratives” around the new policy and that they will keep pressure on the city council to honor the will of the voters.

“Scare tactics are their tactics,” said Tram Hoang, campaign manager for Keep St. Paul Home, during a public webinar on Wednesday.

Passage of the rent control ballot initiative sent shock waves through the city, as developers announced they were pausing construction projects, city staff scrambled to determine when the ordinance would take effect and the mayor pressured the city council to amend it to exempt new construction.

When the ordinance does take effect on May 1, it will be one of the most stringent policies in the country — capping rent increases at 3% annually for all units. (The ordinance does not require the city to monitor rent increases, so renters may need to take their landlords to court to enforce the rule.)

“We didn’t just inundate our neighbors with mailers. We actually had conversations about what this ordinance would do, and why it was good for our city,” Hoang said, in a dig at the opposition campaign, which spent more than $4.3 million fighting the initiative by flooding residents’ mail boxes with fliers.

Hoang detailed their clear victory at the ballot box: 53% of voters approved of the policy. Six of seven wards voted yes. The largest margin of victory came in the old Rondo neighborhood, a historically Black community where property values have been rising faster than in most parts of the city.

The Keep St. Paul Home campaign will now pivot to keeping pressure on the city council, a majority of whom said they did not support the initiative, to enact the ordinance with an email writing campaign.

The council has less than six months to create a process for landlords to seek exemptions to the ordinance. Mayor Melvin Carter, who lent his support to the initiative, wants the city council to pass an amendment exempting new construction from the ordinance.

No other city regulates the rents of new construction, which threatens to hamstring new home building amid an ongoing housing shortage. Ryan Companies said it is postponing parts of the massive Highland Bridge redevelopment project, where construction is already underway on 3,800 new homes, including 760 affordable units.

Rent control proponents expressed skepticism that the rule would hurt new development but declined to say Wednesday if they would fight the city council should they choose to amend the ordinance. The city’s charter says the city council isn’t allowed to repeal the ordinance within the first year of being approved.

“We are absolutely committed to being part of the process to figure out, A, is there a real issue that we’re trying to address that’s based on facts and data and information? And, B, if there is a real issue, what is the way that we can work together to address real problems rather than falling into the fear-based disaster narrative,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center.

In the meantime, landlords can raise rents, prompting fears that some property owners will try to increase rents as much as possible before they’re locked in to 3% increases. If that happens, Kaplan encouraged renters to report excessive rent increases to their campaign.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, 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.