The Righteous Battle for Rent Control in St. Paul and Minneapolis

St. Paul activists celebrate a major victory over the real estate industry

A few weeks ago, in November, activists in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, had done something momentous: in each of their cities, against the deep-pocketed landlord lobby, they managed to convince voters to pass pro-rent control ballot measures. Real estate insiders were rattled by the victories, and housing justice activists found new inspiration to keep pushing for rent control throughout the United States. In the first week of December, I flew to Minnesota from Los Angeles to talk with some of the activists who worked on the campaigns.

In St. Paul, in the basement of the Claddagh Coffee Cafe, I sat down with three young women: Meg Daly, operations and communications associate of the Housing Justice Center; Bahieh Hartshorn, board president of the West Side Community Organization; and Tram Hoang, campaign manager of Keep St. Paul Home, the official group that ran the rent control campaign.

Unlike other rent control initiatives around the nation, the St. Paul measure was uncompromising. It capped annual rent increases at three percent; new rental housing was covered under the initiative; and it didn’t include “vacancy decontrol,” a policy that allows landlords to jack up rents to any price they like for new tenants after old tenants move out. In any town or city in the U.S. where rent control has been implemented, landlords aggressively demand, and defend, vacancy decontrol.

St. Paul activists moved to establish rent control because the people they served were getting slammed by massive rent increases: $200 or $300 or $400 per month, or $2,400 or $3,600 or $4,800 per year. It was a disturbing trend that started around 2017, Bahieh Hartshorn told me, after more luxury-housing developments were being built.

“It was becoming very obvious that St. Paul was now getting that feeling of gentrification,” she said.

A kick-starter for that new construction, Hartshorn said, was the creation of the federal Opportunity Zones in 2017 under the Trump administration. Opportunity Zones is a controversial program that gives real estate investors generous tax breaks for building new developments in poor and working-class neighborhoods. But many housing justice groups, including Housing Is A Human Right, believed it was another trickle-down policy that would further enrich luxury-housing developers while triggering mass gentrification.

“Corporate developers are now successfully being able to build market-rate and luxury housing on land that’s been empty for years,” said Hartshorn.

And once more luxury housing with sky-high rents appeared on the rental housing market, especially in middle- and working-class communities, other landlords decided to increase their rents to similar levels.

“Landlords were realizing that they could raise their rent because the average rent was becoming higher,” Hartshorn explained.

A new soccer stadium and light rail line, among other new construction projects, were also fueling gentrification.

So activists decided they needed rent control to protect longtime working-class residents, many of whom are people of color. Perhaps a bit optimistically, they thought they could win.

“I knew it would be really difficult,” Tram Hoang told me, “but I thought we could. Because I worked in Portland where there was almost too much of a developer presence, and it would be really hard to pass [rent control]. It’s such a heightened political climate. Same in Minneapolis. But the nice thing about St. Paul is that things fly under the radar here… And we wouldn’t have done this if we thought we couldn’t win.”

Tram Hoang, campaign manager of Keep St. Paul Home

In fact, St. Paul activists had already laid a foundation for a victory by their years-long work of organizing tenants and community building. But it still wasn’t going to be easy. They faced an opposition campaign, backed by landlords and developers, that raised around $4 million to defeat the St. Paul and Minneapolis initiatives. Keep St. Paul Home, on the other hand, only had a campaign war chest of around $215,000 and Minneapolis had roughly $350,000. When it comes to elections, the campaign with the most money often wins. (AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Housing Is A Human Right’s parent organization, was a major contributor to both the St. Paul and Minneapolis campaigns.)

But, according to Hoang, the opposition failed to make the same kind of local connections and build up a grassroots movement as community activists had done before and during the campaign.

“They relied too much on the expertise of people who had run national campaigns and not St. Paul campaigns,” said Hoang. “That’s what really killed them in the end.”

And St. Paul activists were continually having straightforward conversations with voters, especially with those who hadn’t made up their minds.

“A lot of conversations were with people who weren’t firm a yes, but weren’t firm a no,” Meg Daly told me. “They were just confused. They had received so many mailers from the opposition at that point. And these are just your average people who said they don’t want anybody to be hurt and were confused by what’s going on. And we never skimmed past those conversations. We always had those conversations with people, telling them why something wasn’t true and what we believed in.”

On Election Night, November 2, after months of knocking on doors, distributing fliers, and carrying out all the other tasks that are needed to win, Daly and the other activists waited for hours for the final results to roll in.

“I was nervous the whole time,” Daly said. “I was just staring at a wall for a bit. It was scary.”

When the election was finally called, the rent control ballot measure won by an impressive six-point margin: 53 percent to 47 percent. The activists were thrilled, but within days, the real estate industry went on a “capital strike,” as Daly described it — some developers, hoping to force the St. Paul City Council to make changes to the approved initiative, said they wouldn’t build new projects. That was followed by hysterical headlines, with national and local publications declaring that rent control was creating “confusion” and “chaos” in St. Paul.

Elected officials didn’t help matters. Mayor Melvin Carter launched a website that said the rent control ordinance was going into immediate effect, but then it was quickly taken down. A spokesman for the mayor then said the city would talk with community members on how to implement rent control, and some City Council members criticized the mayor’s post-election handling of the initiative. Another government official said the city didn’t yet have the infrastructure in place to enforce rent control.

What it all boils down to is that St. Paul activists have another battle on their hands: to get City Hall to implement the rent control ordinance as it was passed by voters without substantial changes, such as trying to add vacancy decontrol or include broad exemptions for new development.

The City Council “haven’t really done anything with implementation,” said Hoang. “It’s been a month since it passed, and they have just been sitting around, twiddling their thumbs.”

She added, “The city is kind of taking it really slow with implementation on purpose because they want to add to this confusion and chaos narrative. If there’s no plan for implementation, then everyone’s confused. And that makes the policy look bad. I think that’s intentionally what they’re doing right now. But when we drafted the ordinance, we said that the rent cap would be in effect on May 1, 2022, which gives them six months to figure it out.”

While the City Council is taking its time as tenants keep facing gentrification and sky-high rents, St. Paul activists are already gearing up for the fight.

“At this point,” said Hoang, “it’s going to be a lot of organizing and putting pressure on the City Council so they actually move on it.”

Daly added, “A huge focus of our work now is making sure the policy is implemented according to the will of everybody who voted for it — the more than 30,000 people who voted for it.”

But the activists wouldn’t be surprised if the real estate industry, with its deep pockets, filed a lawsuit.

“These corporations that have all that money are always going to sue because that’s the type of power that they have,” Hoang said. “We’re just going to make sure the voices of folks, who are going to be directly helped by this ordinance, are heard.”

Jennifer Arnold, co-director of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia

A couple of hours later, Tram Hoang drove me over to Minneapolis to talk with Jennifer Arnold, co-director of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, or United Renters for Justice. Her office was inside a community center in a working-class neighborhood, only a half block away from where George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Founded in 2015, Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia organized renters, helped them push back against predatory landlords, and fought evictions and excessive rent increases. Since the start of Arnold’s work, tenants talked about the need for rent control, but housing justice activists couldn’t see a way of making it happen.

“It just seemed impossible,” Arnold told me. “It was like a great dream. But we talked about it from the beginning because that’s what our membership cared about.”

In the meantime, members of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, many of whom were Latino, were facing rent increases as high as $500 per month, or $6,000 per year — a shocking amount of money for people with modest incomes. Similar to St. Paul, those rent hikes were triggered by more luxury-housing developments in the area and, as a result, more gentrification and the displacement of longtime, working-class residents.

“We could feel the pressure of that gentrification,” said Arnold.

People were forced to move to other cities, far from their jobs and social networks in Minneapolis, and their children were taken away from their friends and needed to attend different schools.

“It disrupts school, jobs, and the community fabric,” Arnold explained.

Then, in 2020, a coalition of community groups and labor unions, called Home to Stay Minneapolis, started up to explore ways to establish rent control. Due to legal technicalities, Minneapolis voters first needed to approve a ballot measure that gave the City Council permission to craft a rent control ordinance. Once that was passed, the politicians could write the policy. With a pathway to rent control figured out, the coalition, which was co-founded by Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, moved forward with a ballot measure campaign.

Once again, the grassroots activists had one major advantage: they had been organizing people and different ethnic communities for years, which would help with the ground game of turning out voters. Also, Minneapolis residents had seen, over recent years, the devastating, life-altering impacts of sky-rocketing rents. But the coalition still faced a huge obstacle: the politically connected, well-financed real estate industry.

Arnold and her fellow activists were preparing for the fight of their lives. But to their surprise, the opposition campaign, which had millions at its disposal, struggled.

“It was like we were playing a basketball game,” she said, “and we had a really tall opponent, so we were nervous. But then we got onto the court and we found out they couldn’t dribble.”

The opposition campaign sent out numerous mailers and hired top-notch consultants from out of state, but they never came up with a strong, local message to win over voters.

“They relied on national support [from landlord organizations],” Arnold explained, “but it wasn’t strategic for this market. They didn’t really drill down on the local stuff.”

By November 2, on Election Night, Arnold was feeling confident, and the result was decisive: 53 percent of Minneapolis voters supported the rent control ballot measure. But, on that same evening, key City Council members who backed rent control had lost their re-election bids. A few days later, Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, started splitting hairs like only a politician could, saying the vote wasn’t a mandate to establish rent control, but merely an approval to “consult with experts and determine what could be or could not be an appropriate policy.” It wasn’t a good sign.

“So our pathway forward is really hard,” Arnold told me.

She also expected a tougher battle against the real estate industry.

“Frankly,” Arnold said, “it’s an easier fight for them once we’re fighting about the actual policy.”

For Minneapolis activists, they want a rent control policy that’s similar to St. Paul’s. But even though thousands of tenants continue to struggle with sky-high rents, gentrification, evictions, and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arnold doesn’t expect the City Council to act quickly.

“Of our swing votes [on the City Council],” Arnold explained, “they say we need a process. ‘What’s the robust process for studying and figuring this out?’ Which indicates to me, ‘How do we drag our feet? How do we make this process take as long as possible?’ And some of the new council members don’t want a policy at all.”

And even if the City Council passes a rent control ordinance, the City Attorney may insist that voters must approve it through another ballot measure to satisfy state law or Mayor Jacob Frey may veto it.

“It’s complicated, to say the least,” said Arnold.

The coalition may even decide to go back to the ballot.

“Our members need rent control,” Arnold said. “People need this.”

As the politicians come up with schemes and strategies to delay or even kill a rent control ordinance, Arnold said one thing can’t be ignored: on November 2, Minneapolis voters said they want rent control.

“We won this by a significant majority,” she explained. “We need a policy. We need to make this happen.”

Patrick Range McDonald, the author of this article, is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.

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Housing Is A Human Right

Housing Is A Human Right

Housing Is A Human Right is the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We fight for what’s right.