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Dispatches from the present


Losing Control


In 2021, a community coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota organized a campaign called Keep St. Paul Home to pass a ballot initiative that would implement one of the most protective rent-control policies in the country. Significantly outspent by real-estate interests looking to block the initiative, the campaign nonetheless succeeded: last November, 53 percent of voters endorsed a 3 percent cap on rent increases, and in May the policy went into effect. In September, five months later, a majority of the St. Paul City Council voted to gut the policy with a series of revisions set to take effect in 2023.1The amendments do include some new protections for tenants: there is now a regulation that makes it more difficult for landlords to charge tenants extra fees, and another that requires the city to notify tenants if landlords are requesting exceptions to the rentincrease cap. But the council majority voted to exclude from the cap all new construction for twenty years and all affordable housing. And once a tenant vacates a unit, a landlord can now raise the rent up to 8 percent plus inflation.

Thirty-six-year-old St. Paul City Councilor Mitra Jalali, one of two councilors who supported the original policy, became interested in housing-justice advocacy when she was a schoolteacher. Sworn into the Council in 2018, she has worked to secure various tenant protections. She reflects here on the atmosphere that led to the original ordinance, why it didn’t make it through the council intact and the challenges bureaucracy poses to progressive groups.

—Molly Montgomery

As a teacher, I saw my students come to school exhausted, and realized that it was because they weren’t sleeping, and they weren’t sleeping because they were between homes, or homeless. And as a councilman now, a lot of my job, and a lot of what my staff spend their time on, is dealing with really negligent landlords. Our constituents call us because there’s black mold, because they’re getting application fees racked up on them, because their landlord is unresponsive to repairs.

The campaign for the ballot initiative came up in 2021. It was well into a year of pandemic housing instability and successive rounds of eviction moratoria being passed and extended. People were struggling to access rent help made available by the state or by the feds. A lot of that money actually went to landlords. The combination of the pandemic and then seeing the power that the landlord lobby had in that crisis really tilled the soil for a community movement that wanted more power for our people and for renters. And it’s not just about rent, it’s about who has power in this economy. Who has stability in this economy? It was the year after George Floyd was murdered in our state. It goes deeper than just the housing issue.

I was so nervous on election night—I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. So I was surprised when we won the ballot initiative. I think a lot of people who are in the political left are just really used to losing. And so when you win, it’s like, what?

The Keep St. Paul campaign very effectively painted a picture of the importance of housing justice and stability. And I think [its success can be attributed to] effective storytelling and a sense that we’re all in this together. You know, the opposition spent $4 million to try to defeat our ballot initiative and an initiative in Minneapolis, and a lot of their money went into unpersuasive mailers, lots of fear-based messaging. And no local organizing game. So they lost. And we won because we just put in the work. And because people ultimately believed in the general values behind it, which is that we should have more protections for renters so they’re not displaced in our community.

But there’s a supermajority of this council that did not support the ballot initiative. Four out of the seven people on our council went public opposing it before it was voted on. And then another one didn’t take a position and two of us supported it. This was a council that was on record as being averse to the policy before it was even adopted, and retroactively went in and made changes. We’re told that these processes are important and that everyone has to be at the table and we’re all not getting what we want. But in this particular policy process, a lot of compromises that were principles that housing-justice advocates fought for were completely discarded in favor of what the majority of the council really wanted. If you wanted a rent-stabilization policy written by developers and landlords, this is probably similar to what you’d get. The debate really reflected where power lies in the process.

Other communities would do well to learn how to stay organized and make sure that there’s a clear understanding that there’s going to be multiple phases to this process. If you start a ballot, first, you have to win a campaign. Then you have to actually shepherd the policy through implementation and through the bureaucracy and the ecosystem inside City Hall, which is a lot less democratic. Staff and policy experts, city attorneys—there are multiple phases and arenas to this fight. Progressive groups often just don’t have the same funding or system knowledge. Think of all the real-estate interests that have a much deeper system knowledge and access through their capital to the city infrastructure than our residents. They know about zoning and all the staff that regulates it, they know about the variance process. They understand the Planning and Economic Development team that helps finance the projects, they interface with electeds. I think it needs to get talked about more openly who has disproportionate access to city government.

One thing that is really sitting with me is the exemption that was passed completely excluding all types of subsidized affordable housing from the policy. So that’s anyone who lives in a building funded with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. That’s anyone in the state tax-break affordability programs. That’s folks who rent on a Section 8 voucher. These renters deserve more protections, not fewer.

I have a lot of constituents right now who live in affordable-housing property, and they have had stable, low rents for many years. But their rent is going up this year 11 percent. That is something that many tenants in the building can’t afford. Without a city policy, there isn’t a guarantee of rent stability. There needs to be a policy that guarantees that.

We have an election next year. Many voters are very angry that these changes have been made. And they do get to decide who represents them on the city council. From what I’m hearing, people feel like this is a betrayal of what people want in our city. They don’t feel cared about or prioritized in our policy-making processes. I expect that to show up in the election. The thing about local government is you have the power to change things. It’s very accessible. My hope is that people who do want to see different housing policy in our city that is more centered on tenants get involved and make that clear to anyone ready to represent them.

Photo credit: Tony Webster (Flickr CC / BY 2.0)