Consider these three seemingly competing facts:
The prevalent assumption behind these facts—that what is good for tenants, who now make up the majority of St. Paul’s population, is necessarily bad for the business of landlords—has left people on all sides of the issue with questions and frustrations, turning rent stability into a zero-sum game.
Tenants are wondering if landlords can raise their rents before the new 3 percent rent cap takes effect. The owners ask if the roof will apply to buildings they have recently updated and renovated. Everyone wants to clarify when the law will go into effect, and feelings – from anger and fear to hope and optimism – are rising.
Ward 4 City Councilwoman Mitra Jalali, a strong and vocal advocate for the rent stabilization law, is directing her constituents to the city’s new hotline and the email address: 6553-266-8553 and [email protected] The city’s director of communications, Peter Leggett, said a media site, which was taken down shortly after the election, will soon be available again.
Jalali was the youngest person, the only renter and the only woman of color when she was elected to St. Paul City Council in the fall of 2018. She has been a strong and consistent voice on behalf of housing equality, describing rent stabilization “a policy designed to centralize and address the experiences of low-income renters, most of whom of renters of colour, and who are facing rises in exploitative and extractive rents.”
Being a pro, however, doesn’t have to be the same as being an anti-owner. Given the scale of new construction and development at her stand, Jalali says she is “well aware of the facts [that] Developers and investors are on the move.” The councilwoman urges all Ward 4 constituents—homeowners, renters, and landlords alike—to call her office with questions and concerns.
Local council offices want more information, too. “I need to know what I’m supposed to say to people,” says the CEO of one of the city’s 17 city councils, which relays neighborhood notes to the city council. “If a tenant signs a lease next week and the rent goes up by 10 percent and it’s proven illegal, the situation will be difficult.”
What counts as “rent”?
Words matter: those who opposed the rent law tended to call it “rent control,” while advocates mirror the de facto language of Chapter 193a of the legislative act, which calls the measure “rent fixation.”
For Casey Gordon, 39, a renter who lives on the northern edge of the booming, mostly white, home-grown Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, the suffrage initiative was the right next step.
Gordon, who is white and has never owned a home, moved to Mac-Gruffland from Harlem. After seeing her friends take advantage of rent control during her 15 years in New York City, she says it “seems really easy” to vote for a rent stabilization, although critics – and some who voted for the measure – were uneasy about the mandate Who does not exclude new real estate or take into account the inflation of the rent ceiling.
It views the ordinance not as a “silver bullet” – the only solution to the persistent shortage of safe, affordable, dignified housing options in St. Paul – than as a citizen-driven measure. More than 9,000 initiative signatures placed on the November ballot, and nearly 53 percent of St. Paul voters filled in the “yes” box on November 2. “I kept thinking about suppressing the pursuit of perfection,” says Gordon, who pays $965 for a one-bedroom apartment plus laundry fees. “Waiting for something perfect means we may not take any action on affordable housing.”
Like other tenants in the city, Gordon is holding her breath between now and May, when the city officially sets a 3 percent rent increase, including when the unit turns to new tenants. Her Grand Avenue building had just been sold, and the new owners had charged Gordon to fix her bathroom sink. “I’ve never had this before,” she says. Being on a month-to-month lease makes her feel vulnerable to a rent increase. Therefore, I decided to “keep my head down” and not contest the charge.
An attorney at Home Line, a Bloomington-based nonprofit tenant advocacy organization, is concerned about these fees. Tenants in both St. Paul and Minneapolis — where permission to monitor rents was voted on in November by a similar margin — are calling Home Line to report a growing number of landlord fees. “Fees will become the new way to increase rents,” says the lawyer, who asked not to be named.
He points out the difference between the “optional” fee for pets or garage use, and the “non-optional” fee for signing or renewing a lease or because in January: “I’m not making up that,” the attorney says. “It’s basically just rent. They put it in a different category.”
Owner inquiries and confusion
I connect with over 250 realtors in the Community Relations League at St. Thomas University. Some rent a house or two to college students as passive income; Others make their living by renting out a variety of properties to families or other adults.
A number of landlords were quick to answer my last query: What questions do you have about rent stability for city officials?
- Wouldn’t rent support for disadvantaged tenants be more effective?
- “How does this decree address the significant inflationary pressures we face as a society, a nation, and a nation?”
- “How does this affect the leases that tenants have already signed next year?”
- “If I have a two-year lease with two tenants, can I increase the rent by 6 percent after the second year ends?”
- “Can we exclude utilities and property taxes and allow them to adjust to the actual costs incurred?”
- “Do we hand over our leases? How will the city know what our rents are?”
- “Since landlords are constrained to a 3 percent rent increase, would the city consider limiting the property tax rate increase to 3 percent?”
- “What will the exemption process look like?”
- “Can the city provide standard guidelines that will automatically identify eligible improvements to be excluded from the cap? This would encourage property improvements and upgrades.”
I brought up one of the most common concerns I’ve ever heard – Wouldn’t the rent cap hurt the small landlords who tried to keep tenants by lowering rents? – to “We won! What now?” Webinar sponsored by Housing Equity Now St. Paul on November 17.
Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center in St. Paul, promised to “share with small owners.” She urged attendees to distinguish between so-called mom-and-pop owners – people like Danette Lincoln, a Merriam Park resident who rents out my two duplexes at below-market rates and pays for them to tenants – and REITs. [real estate investment trusts] who control a lot of single-family dwellings.”
Home Line’s attorney warns that keeping rents low is often more than altruism. He says the owners “are doing it in part because it’s a good business decision”. “Staff turnover is the enemy of landlords,” he estimates, costing them the equivalent of one month’s rent. “There is nothing more valuable to a landlord than a good tenant.”
Councilman Jalali provides reassurance and resources to stakeholders while the city outlines a process for how this important change will work.
“We all do better when we all do better”
During a recent public conversation with Dr. Uhuru Williams hosted by St. Thomas University, where I work, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter referred to “a city with great opportunities and great prosperity.” He also warned of a city with “enormous, embarrassing, pervasive disparities. We have people who live in penthouses and people who live in the shadows of these tall buildings being built.”
The mayor quoted the late Senator Paul Wellston: “We all do better when everything is better.” St. Paul resident Dan Folds, a realtor and mid-size landlord, loves this mantra, too, although it didn’t convince him to vote for rent stability.
As a Democrat who supports progressive politics and “gave a lot of money to Bernie Sanders,” Fulds says it pains him to vote against an ordinance his party was pushing. But he couldn’t“Align the type of housing provider he is trying to be, the one who takes care of his tenants and often handles maintenance requests on the weekends. Fowls“ The business model includes buying and renovating “sad” buildings, increasing rent and improving people“living conditions.
Concerns about “debt service coverage ratios” and the unwillingness of banks to lend money to projects in St. Paul Faults have prompted rent stabilization advocates to meet ahead of the November vote. He said they told him, “You will only work through the exemption process” to cover unexpected expenses such as property tax increases and some capital improvements.
“Maybe,” says Foulds. “We’ll see how that works.”
For councilman Jalali, the strongest consideration is “the promotion of racial equality in a housing system that has been steeped in discrimination, during a time when people are hungry for meaningful systemic change”. Her work on tenant protection policies shows her that victim tenants are often afraid to speak up.
Leggett, the city’s director of communications, says the department has “encouraged that members of the community are eager to participate and help answer critical questions” and will assign a group to push rent stability forward.