Petition drive kicks off in St. Paul to put rent control on the November ballot

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James Walsh, Star Tribune
·3 min read
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A coalition of community groups on Tuesday announced a drive to put rent control on the November ballot in St. Paul.

The group, called Housing Equity Now St. Paul, is proposing to cap rent increases on all residential properties in the city to 3% each year.

While that cap would benefit all renters, organizers say, it would improve housing equity for low-income families and people of color. According to the group, 82% of Black St. Paul residents — and 64% of Indigenous residents, 62% of Latino residents and 58% of Asian residents — are renters. Less than 40% of white residents are renters, they said.

Overall, more than half of the city's residents live in rental housing.

"We also know from our organizing that [Black, Indigenous and people of color] households are far more likely to experience the impact of predatory and unscrupulous landlords who demand unreasonable rent increases to intentionally price families out — or simply boost their profits," said Danielle Swift, an organizer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and a member of the coalition.

The group hopes to collect 10,000 names in support of putting the measure to city voters this fall. About half that many would be enough to require a ballot measure.

"Rent stabilization is a proven policy that protects tenants from unreasonable rent spikes, accounts for the operating expenses of landlords and is cost effective for our city and taxpayers," said Tram Hoang, a policy advocate at The Alliance, another coalition member. "Yes, our housing crisis is the result of many issues ... Rent stabilization is just part of the solution, but we will never solve the housing crisis without it."

But Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents rental property owners, said rent control programs don't work. In fact, they can drive housing developers to build projects elsewhere, he said.

"Rent control is a failed policy. It's been documented the world over," he said. "It doesn't solve the long-term challenges of housing affordability. The only thing that does is [increasing housing] supply."

The Minneapolis City Council is discussing two potential city charter amendments — one that would give the council the authority to pass a rent control ordinance and the other would put rent control to a direct public vote. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he opposes rent control.

Asked for his position on rent control, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter declined to state one.

"We look forward to a robust citywide conversation about this proposal," said his spokesman Peter Leggett.

Mitra Jalali, a St. Paul City Council member who has championed renters' rights, said she backs the effort, since a state law prohibits cities from passing rent control ordinances without it first going on a ballot.

"We are severely limited in our ability to address a lot of these types of policies," she said. "But our community can't wait."

Across the country, low-income families and people of color who pay a higher percentage of their income for housing bear a heavier burden when rents increase.

"This is a sensible step to curb that," she said.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428