Confusion reigns over start date of St. Paul rent control rules

St. Paul city officials appeared caught off guard this week after voters passed one of the nation's toughest rent control policies.

The cap, which received 52.9 percent support in Tuesday's election, limits rent increases to 3 percent a year. The ordinance includes a start date of May 1, 2022, but the city charter requires any voter-approved ordinance to take effect immediately. 

On Wednesday morning, Mayor Melvin Carter's administration launched -- and then quickly took down -- a website noting that the ordinance was effective right away. Later that same day, St. Paul City Council members expressed frustration that administration officials had few answers about the city's implementation plan.

"We’re completely flat-footed at this point," Council Member Jane Prince, a vocal critic of rent control said in an interview Friday. "We’re completely unprepared."

Carter did not agree to an interview Thursday or Friday. A spokesman for the mayor said Carter would consult with community members on how to "implement and improve upon this policy."

Carter, who was re-elected in a landslide victory Tuesday, endorsed the ballot measure just before the election while saying city officials would need to make the ordinance "better, quickly." That prompted the St. Paul City Attorney's Office to respond that any major changes within a year would risk a lawsuit. 

St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Director Nicolle Goodman said this week that the city doesn't have the infrastructure in place to enforce the rent control ordinance right away. 

Against that backdrop, rent control supporters said tenants who face a yearly rent increase of more than 3 percent should contact a tenant rights group or attorney.

"If they do receive a rent increase of more than 3 percent, they are now protected by this ordinance," said Tram Hoang, the campaign manager for Keep St. Paul Home, which successfully passed the ballot measure. "There might be discomfort with certain council members that it passed. They might not have expected that, but the will of the voters will be enacted."

Goodman sought to address questions at this week's City Council meeting, where the confusion was on display.

The city's new rent control FAQ website was a work in progress and "shouldn't have been published," she said. An archived version of it was still visible through an internet browser cache Friday.

City Council members who opposed the rent control ordinance blasted the administration for being unprepared for the election results.

"Our role as a city is to provide information, and we’re told we don’t have any," Council President Amy Brendmoen said.

Some landlords are operating under the assumption that the ordinance is in effect now. Prince said one landlord was so frustrated by the confusion that he told her, "I'm just gonna sell."

Minnesota Multi-Housing, the state's biggest landlord group that unsuccessfully fought rent control measures in Minneapolis and St. Paul this fall, has been quiet since the election. A spokesman declined to set up an interview for this story.

Rent control opponents said they're expecting landlords to file a lawsuit against the city.

"I think it sends a different message if the multi-housing association and some of the folks who were pushing to defeat this measure say look, we told you throughout this campaign we were looking out for your best interests and when you didn’t vote for us, we decided that we don’t care what you think anymore and we’re going to sue," Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center, said in an interview.