What’s Next for Rent Control in Minneapolis?
On June 6, rent control advocates marched up the white marble steps in the rotunda of Minneapolis City Hall, gearing up for what everyone assumed would be a summer-long push to send a policy limiting annual rent increases to the ballot.
“What do we want?” cried Roberto de la Riva, co-executive director of the group United Renters for Justice, his voice booming through a megaphone. “Rent stabilization!” the crowd responded. “When do we want it?” “Now!”
“Our neighbors in Cedar-Riverside are just one paycheck away from homelessness,” renter Ziad Oumer added. “We demand rent stabilization. There is a need for protection from greedy landlords who exploit us.”
But at this rally, activists were also intentionally vague about what they wanted besides quick action. Two weeks earlier, in late May, City Council members had voted by the narrowest of margins to begin drafting a rent control proposal on the November ballot — and organizers of the rally in the rotunda knew they’d need to achieve a compromise to actually put the question before voters.
“If we’re going to hold on for the perfect policy, as great as it would be — that’s not going to pass,” Hannah Merrill, a board member with the interfaith advocacy group ISAIAH, told rally attendees. “People in this room, our neighbors, we need something that will pass that’s good — not something that will pass, something that’s good that will pass — and we need our City Council members to be willing to negotiate.”
So rent control supporters knew they’d have to thread a needle — and with the threat of a veto looming from Mayor Jacob Frey, the chances of actually getting “something that’s good” on the ballot may have been slim.
Supporters also assumed they’d have all summer to find that compromise. Instead — less than a month after this rally — their push to act on rent control this year fell suddenly short.
On Wednesday, June 28, with three Muslim City Council members absent to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday, rent control supporters couldn’t muster the votes to advance the idea past a procedural hurdle. Opponents voted 5-4 to kill the proposal (with one member abstaining), likely dooming any chance that supporters could place the measure on the ballot this year.
“We’ll absolutely be speaking up,” said ISAIAH organizer Ben Whalen in the moments after the vote, “about the decision — on a sacred holiday to their communities — to end this conversation to end this process.”
But beyond expressing outrage at the timing of the vote, rent control supporters have yet to decide on their next move.
If you’ve been waiting for a big counterpunch after the vote, here’s why it hasn’t arrived yet:
Most of the advocacy groups have been coordinating through a group called the Home to Stay coalition, which includes United Renters and a dozen other labor unions and advocacy groups. The coalition also includes ISAIAH and a number of faith groups with significant Muslim constituencies, who were also observing Eid — so rent control advocates have been holding back on promising next steps until they’re all available to meet to decide on a strategy.
Will rent control become an election issue?
Immediately after Wednesday’s vote, Whalen declined to say whether the Home to Stay coalition would be active in the run-up to the November election, during which all 13 Minneapolis council seats will be on the ballot.
Regardless, the rent control issue will almost certainly be an election issue.
“Mad about the Mpls City Council vote? … Help elect a new council member in Ward 8,” tweeted the Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has endorsed Soren Stevenson, the candidate challenging City Council President Andrea Jenkins.
Jenkins voted in favor of continuing debate on rent control and against killing the proposal. Nonetheless, critics suggested that as the council’s presiding officer, Jenkins bore responsibility for allowing the vote to move ahead on a major Islamic holiday.
Jenkins’ defenders, including Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, said that any scheduling error was not on any individual council member or staffer.
City staff had decided more than a year ago to reschedule last week’s City Council meeting in hopes of avoiding a conflict with Eid al-Adha. However, certain Muslims time their observance to the actual sighting of a new moon, which means that the actual date of the holiday can shift by a matter of days. Eid al-Adha’s date was confirmed on June 18, but City Council members didn’t realize the conflict until Monday.
Jenkins expressed regret, but said that within the three-day notice period required by state open meeting laws, the council had little choice but to proceed: “It was a very long and winding conversation — how do we accommodate these members — and we really just couldn’t come up with a solution.”
The Twin Cities DSA wasn’t having it: “This was a calculated ploy to once again block any meaningful action,” the group said in a tweet.
Would another policy have been able to garner enough votes?
With Minneapolis’ rent control coalition observing both the religious and secular holiday breaks, it’s also not clear whether supporters will adjust their strategy to propose a different rent control policy in the future.
City Council members Aisha Chughtai and Jamal Osman had proposed using a model with ambitious provisions and strict limits on rent increases that emerged from a city-convened working group — a model known as “Framework 5” — as a starting point for negotiations. They had proposed:
- A strict 3% cap on annual rent increases;
- “Vacancy control,” which bars property owners from raising rents to market levels when a unit becomes vacant;
- No exemptions for subsidized affordable housing or newly-built units; and
- A process for allowing landlords to raise rent to pay for substantial capital improvements or deferred maintenance.
Chughtai had stressed to colleagues that they’d have opportunities to amend the proposal as it moved ahead — and indeed supporters were banking on council members being willing to compromise on a policy that would either pass with the mayor’s support, or with the nine-vote supermajority needed to survive a veto attempt.
At least one council member, Andrew Johnson, has said that he was open to creating some sort of rent control policy, but he wasn’t willing to support Framework 5, “the most extreme version” of rent control under consideration.
“It’s not the approach that is how you ultimately end up getting a policy passed at the end of the day,” Johnson told John Edwards of Wedge Live. “I don’t believe it’s a good policy, so I’m not going to vote for it now and say, ‘Okay, later I’ll vote against it, though.’”
Though a majority of the Minneapolis rent control working group members preferred Framework 5, a substantial minority preferred a second, more-moderate option. The so-called “Framework 7” called for:
- A looser cap on rent hikes, allowing potentially as much as a 7% hike annually, plus an adjustment for inflation;
- A “banking” system that allows landlords who forego a rent increase in one year to raise the rent by an even greater amount in a future year;
- “Vacancy decontrol,” allowing property owners to raise a vacant unit’s rent to market levels after a tenant moves out;
- An exemption for affordable housing, newly-built units or owner-occupied housing.
But passing rent control might not be any easier with this more-moderate policy.
Johnson — who’s not running for re-election — also told Wedge Live that he didn’t feel like he’d be the swing vote on rent control; Johnson felt his support would be easier to win than the mayor’s.
While Frey’s veto threat is strictly limited to a policy that looks like Framework 5, he’s also spoken at length about his belief that rent control generally doesn’t work.
It’s also not clear if members of the City Council’s left wing would be willing to pass a policy that allows larger rent increases and other flexibilities for landlords — especially if supporters of a stricter policy see the fall election as a chance to boost their numbers.
But we also may never know. Advocates were banking on sorting all of this out during committee hearings in July. Last week’s vote made the question moot.
“We will regroup with our members,” Whalen said, “and reassess where we go next. But, again, inaction is unacceptable.”