St. Paul City Council compromises on rent control for empty apartments

St. Paul City Council compromises on rent control for empty apartments

Following criticism from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office and coalitions of housing advocates, the St. Paul City Council voted 7-0 on Wednesday to compromise on a key change to the city’s rent-control ordinance involving vacant apartments.

The new amendment authored by council President Amy Brendmoen and council member Chris Tolbert would allow landlords to raise rents by 8 percent, on top of inflation, whenever their rental is unoccupied.

That language replaces a proposal the council adopted last week for “full vacancy decontrol,” which would have allowed landlords to raise rents as much as they want once a unit is empty. Facing the prospect of unlimited rent hikes on vacant units, members of the Service Employees International Union and the interfaith advocacy organization ISAIAH had urged the mayor to veto a full package of planned ordinance changes. Carter had reached out to council members leading up to Wednesday’s discussion, urging them to reconsider.

“Folks were concerned we were giving (landlords) a blank check with an untethered vacancy decontrol,” said Brendmoen, addressing the council on Wednesday.


Brendmoen said the goal of her less aggressive decontrol measure was “to incentivize reinvestment in our properties” and noted that a series of “just cause” protections would bar landlords from emptying out units solely to hike rents.

The full vacancy decontrol policy “had no limit,” said council member Mitra Jalali, while still expressing frustration with the final package. “I feel disappointed on the path that this has gone down. … It makes something that was passed last week … slightly less bad.”

Following Wednesday’s vote, SEIU and ISAIAH officials issued a joint statement thanking the council and noting “long-time renters won’t be in a situation where landlords have a strong new incentive to push them out.”

The city council will reopen a public hearing next Wednesday and then vote on Tolbert’s master amendment to the city’s “rent stabilization” ordinance, which includes a raft of additional changes adopted by the council on Sept. 7. The new package of amendments features a 20-year exemption from rent control for new housing and appears destined to win final council approval and the mayor’s signature.

“Today’s vote reflects the will of our voters and the recommendations we received from the stakeholder group this summer,” said Carter, in a written statement following the vote. “I look forward to signing this ordinance as currently drafted.”


Council member Jane Prince, who had authored the vacancy decontrol measure that was approved 4-3 last week, said she was open to the Brendmoen compromise. The goal, she said, was to offer landlords motivation to maintain attractive, livable units and continue to invest in the city. Without some level of decontrol, she said, landlords will raise rents 3 percent annually in an attempt to keep up with the market and keep rents high enough to attract a buyer when it comes time to sell.

“I do want to say that I am concerned there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what vacancy decontrol is about,” said Prince on Wednesday. “It is not an incentive to eviction. … In fact, vacancy decontrol allows landlords to preserve long tenancies. … The (new) cap will definitely help with the landlord’s opportunities to make those reinvestments.”

Council member Nelsie Yang, one of the two council members who had publicly supported rent control as it rolled out before voters last November, said that she would support Brendmoen’s compromise proposal but that the city could still do better.

“I still feel that we are not doing the best that we can … fighting for renters,” she said.

Jalali, who had spoken passionately against full vacancy decontrol earlier this month, shared those concerns. Jalali said she would have preferred allowing landlords to bank increases they had not instituted under the city’s 3 percent rent cap, rolling them out cumulatively at a later date. Other council members had called “banking” onerous and difficult to track.

“I also left last week’s meeting feeling very uncomfortable with where we landed,” said council member Rebecca Noecker. “I think this offers much stronger protections. … I think this is also a good compromise. It’s also much simpler for tenants to understand, and if tenants don’t understand the ordinance, there’s no way to protect them and their rights.”

Both Brendmoen and Jalali said they are still working out the finer points of additional amendments that could be introduced at a later date.

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