Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey has proposed an ordinance that would require owners of apartment buildings to provide a voter registration form to any new tenant who moves in. The proposal is a bad idea, for two reasons — one practical, one philosophical.
The practical reason: We need more affordable rental housing in Minneapolis, but putting additional requirements on apartment owners makes it less appealing for them to build and operate apartments here.
It may sound hard to believe that we lack sufficient rental units when every month there’s a new construction crane flying overhead, but those cranes are primarily downtown, not in the north and south where our neighbors need cheaper housing now.
The numbers tell the tale. In the first quarter of 2015, the average apartment vacancy rate across the metro area was a low 2.7 percent, but in every sector of Minneapolis except downtown, it was even lower: 1.8 percent in the east, 2 percent in the south, 2.2 percent in the north. Additionally, the average rent in Minneapolis is 11 percent higher than the average rent in the broader metro area. (All data are from Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development: http://tinyurl.com/pmq3elz — pages 26-27.)
Every budget cycle, the City Council debates how many taxpayer dollars to put toward affordable housing, but the only sustainable way to ensure there’s enough housing at all price points is to make it as easy as possible for private-sector investors to build and operate affordable apartments. Adding yet another requirement for property managers would chase away those investors by fueling the widespread perception that doing business in Minneapolis is worth the hassle only for those investors building high-priced housing.
In addition to the practical reason that the proposed ordinance is a bad idea, there’s a philosophical reason: So far in his first term in office, Frey — a friendly, hardworking person, to be sure — has demonstrated a troubling tendency to use the force of law to require action that he deems good.
His first proposal along these lines — now a law in Minneapolis — required nightclubs to provide free earplugs to patrons. The premise of that law is that adults are incapable of taking care of their own eardrums.
Now comes his proposal for an ordinance requiring property managers to distribute voter-registration forms, premised on the idea that tenants are incapable of managing their own affairs.
Voting is one of citizens’ fundamental responsibilities, and greater voter participation leads to the election of public officials who best represent the will of the people. (Any citizen not registered can do so ahead of time or on Election Day, via paper application or online — even via smartphone — at http://mnvotesinfo.sos.state.mn.us.) But while the proposed ordinance claims the worthy goal of expanding participation in democracy, it conflicts with democracy’s very purpose: to keep power with the people and thereby prevent government officials from capriciously requiring individuals to take action.
Dating back to the Declaration of Independence, the core principle of our system of government is that we the people grant elected officials just enough power to secure our rights — no more. So when elected officials propose and enact laws premised on the notion that we are incapable of buying our own ear plugs and obtaining our own voter registration forms, it’s a warning sign that the balance between individual rights and government force is out of whack.
If our elected officials really think we’re so helpless, what’s next? Might they require supermarket cashiers to chastise us for buying sugary drinks, require Metro Transit drivers to remind us to update our wills and require police officers to use their loudspeakers to encourage us to save for retirement? As long as landlords are already handing out pieces of paper, why not require them to hand out fliers for city-sponsored activities, such as City Council members’ own town-hall meetings?
The slippery slope brings to mind a phrase attributed to various leaders over the years: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
To ensure our neighbors have apartments they can afford, and to ensure the proper balance of power between the people and our elected officials, residents of Minneapolis would be wise to register to vote — and then vote out of office any City Councilmember who tries to foist this proposed ordinance on us.
Cam Winton, of Minneapolis, is an attorney in the energy industry.