Task force recommends keeping St. Paul’s strict rent control mandate

St. Paul’s city council heard a lot of strong opinions Wednesday evening after a task force presented its findings on the city’s rent stabilization policies.

In November, voters decided rent increases should be capped at 3 percent within a year. But now there's concern that landlords may take advantage of some potential loopholes. 

A group of stakeholders created by St. Paul's mayor was tasked with examining that policy and the city's rent stabilization practices.

The members discussed what other cities have done to help control rent costs and prepared a list of recommendations. They presented their findings to St. Paul City Council during a public hearing Wednesday night.

Renters and housing advocates said the 3-percent rent cap should be here to stay.

"I come to you today saying that we need to respect what the voters voted for in November," said B. Rosas with the Minnesota Youth Collective.

The task force, made up of 41 renters, developers, housing advocates and more, met 15 times this year. 

"I, to this day, do not understand why -- we worked this hard to pass this ordinance, we got almost 10,000 signatures on the ballot and we won by a lot -- why were we tasked to do this," said Katherine Banbury, a task force member and lifelong renter.

The stakeholders recommended the 3-percent cap should be maintained, but exemptions should be made, including for landlords who make a case they need a "reasonable rate of return." 

Another exemption they recommended is "banking" in some form, which means making up the difference between what a landlord charges and what they could have charged. For example, if a landlord charges 2 percent, then they would have another 1 percent saved up to charge in the future, incentivizing them not to raise the rent by the full 3 percent initially.

But not everyone supports keeping the rent stabilization policy in place.

"The clearest path forward to bring back housing projects and preserve rental housing in St. Paul is to repeal this ordinance," said Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

"We continue to strongly oppose the rental control ballot initiative, maintaining our deep concern about unintended consequences for such a proposal," said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

The task force also recommended a 15-year-exemption on any new construction – so as not to slow down new development – partial vacancy decontrol and just cause eviction protections.

Several stakeholders told city council they weren't all treated fairly during the task force meetings.

"It's almost like this was set up for us to fail anyway. It was like us against them.  I was disrespected as a Black woman, I was disrespected as a community member, and I was disrespected as a renter," said task force member Clara Ware.

The task force's co-chairs acknowledged the challenges they faced discussing this controversial topic.

"There's a lot of raw feeling on this issue," said Phillip Cryan who is a co-chair and member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. "The people who had the most to say – or who spoke most frequently and sometimes most passionately – often were people who either really, really don’t think rent stabilization is a good policy or who really, really wanted to stick to the terms of the ordinance that voters passed last year."

"We know we need more housing in St. Paul, and we know that we need to protect our residents, especially our Black and Brown residents that are victimized historically," said Tony Sanneh who is a co-chair and head of the Sanneh Foundation.

No action was taken at the council meeting, but council members said the task force’s report gave them a lot to think about in the future.