The push for rent control in Minneapolis, explained

Solomon Gustavo May 3, 2021 (see article at Minnpost)

Rent control has been a hot-button issue for residents and atop the list of priorities for city officials for years, and getting rent control-related ballot questions in front of voters has long been a goal for several council members. Two questions around efforts to impose rent control in Minneapolis are currently being considered by the Minneapolis Charter Commission for inclusion on the ballot for the November 2021 municipal election. Yet the questions themselves would not impose any changes to how rental property is regulated in the city. Rather, they seek the ability for the city to do so — by getting around a Minnesota law that currently prevents cities from implementing rent control. Council Members Jeremiah Ellison, Cam Gordon and Council President Lisa Bender introduced the amendment proposals in January, and the full City Council voted to forward the proposed ballot measures to the Charter Commission in February. The commission, which received public comments on rent control in March, now has until July to finalize its recommendations, though it can send its feedback to the council at any time before then. Here’s a look at what the proposed amendments say, what they would do, and what advocates and opponents say the effects of rent control — if eventually implemented — could be for Minneapolis.

What do the proposed amendments say? The first proposed charter amendment would change Article I of the Minneapolis charter, which outlines the city’s general provisions and powers: “Powers, to be submitted to the voters at the November 2, 2021, municipal election, pertaining to adding authority for registered voters of the City of Minneapolis to propose, by initiative, a rent stabilization ordinance to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis.” The second proposed amendment would change the charter’s Article IV, which outlines the city council’s powers: “Function, to be submitted to the voters at the November 2, 2021, municipal election, pertaining to adding authority for the Council to adopt a rent control ordinance or a rent stabilization ordinance to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis and to submit a rent control or rent stabilization ballot question to qualified voters to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis.”

So what would they actually do? When it comes to implementing rent control: absolutely nothing — at least not initially. Instead, the charter amendments are there to satisfy the exception in Minnesota’s rent control law, which says that charter cities in the state can engage in “controlling rent on private residential property” only if “the ordinance, charter amendment, or law that controls rents is approved in a general election.” That, in essence, is what the two rent control charter amendments do: They give the city the power to pass rent control measures. The first question would give the city the power to do that through a ballot measure (yes, another one) brought forth by residents through the city’s current petition process, which requires the collection of 5 percent of votes cast in the last state election to force a charter amendment on the ballot. The second question is a little more straightforward: It would give the City Council the power to implement rent control through its normal legislative process.

Let’s back up: What exactly is rent control, and what has been the experience with it elsewhere? Rent control is a broad term for rules, laws or ordinances that put limits on a landlord’s ability to charge or increase rent. The specific rules tend to vary by location, and rent control has been implemented in California, New York, and, most recently, Oregon. Ellison said he does not have an ordinance “in his back pocket, ready to go,” if voters would give the city the ability to implement rent control, but he and other council members are doing their due diligence through learning about the pitfalls of efforts elsewhere. Rent control measures around the country typically cap rent increases between 3 and 10 percent, and many policies factor in inflation. Yet Eric Myers, director of government affairs for the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, said places like New York City offer an example of the unintended consequences of rent control, including buildings that fall into disrepair because landlords aren’t able to charge enough rent for upkeep or the presence of well-off tenants who obtain homes with stabilized rents and never move out. Erin West, with Minneapolis United For Rent Control, said rent control measures in San Francisco and New York have exceptions that tend to undermine the intention of the policy. In San Francisco, for example, she said new buildings are exempt from rent control, so developers raze buildings in order to erect new ones and jack up rents. New York has vacancy decontrol, which means a unit’s rent is no longer controlled if a tenant moves out. “The landlord is then incentivized to remove long-term tenants and get a new one in so they can set prices at any level,” said West. West believes the best way to secure a stable rental market is to have rent control measures that make room for little to no exceptions. The one she thinks is reasonable is a carve-out that allows small landlords to raise their rent an extra percent or two in order to pay for repairs to a building. But she would also like the city to create subsidies that landlords could tap to cover housing upkeep.

So is this happening for sure? Where are we in the process? After the council sent the proposed questions to the Charter Commission, the commission had 150 days to decide whether it supports the proposals, rejects the proposals, or wants to replace the proposed amendments with versions of its own. The commission has yet to weigh in, and has until July to do so. Once the Charter Commission responds, the matter goes back to the City Council, which could move forward with the ballot measures — with or without the Cha