Emboldened by their victory in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, low-income advocates and Minneapolis officials are pivoting to their next battle — intervening in the market to try to make rental housing more affordable.
Proposals bouncing around City Hall range from tweaking regulations and encouraging developers to build more units to deeply contentious ideas like giving tenants the right to buy a building before a landlord can sell to someone else.
"Clearly the question of affordability in our city isn't over, even with the $15 victory," said Ginger Jentzen, one of the leaders of the minimum wage campaign and a candidate for City Council. "Now it's time to win really genuinely affordable housing in the city of Minneapolis."
The holy grail for tenant rights activists is rent control. That would require either an amendment to the city's charter or a change in state law. Support for such a measure exists at City Hall, but it is limited.
"It's no secret that I'm definitely interested in exploring rent control," said Council Member Alondra Cano, who said that while the idea may seem far-fetched, so did a $15 minimum wage four years ago. "Minimum wage started back in 2013, and it's 2017 now, so if we put this on a four-year timeline, then you can kind of sketch out what the play might look like."
Meanwhile, the state's largest landlord association is bracing for a fight and laments what it sees as a high-tax, high-regulation environment that is the real obstacle to privately owned affordable housing.
"No one is working hard on that problem, instead there's lots of discussion about more regulations that are not going to help and would likely increase costs to renters," said Mary Rippe, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, in a statement.
A city of renters
Minneapolis became a majority renter city in 2010 and each year more homes in the city are being rented than owned. Meanwhile, the rental vacancy rate in the city remains near historic lows, at 3.4 percent this spring.
According to a Metropolitan Council estimate, the city had 11,500 fewer units that were affordable to a family earning half the area's median income in 2014 compared to 2000. Studies show gentrification in Minneapolis and St. Paul is accelerating.
Minneapolis has responded with several changes meant to encourage construction in the belief that greater supply will meet rising demand and prevent price increases. With Council Member Lisa Bender helping lead the push, the city has changed zoning rules to make it easier for developers to build small apartment buildings, eliminated parking requirements for new apartments along transit corridors and legalized construction of duplexes.
Pressure for protections
But pressure is building for more decisive action to empower renters, and not just in Minneapolis. St. Louis Park, Richfield, Bloomington and Golden Valley are each mulling renter protections.
"I think there's a lot more publicity and organizing happening around it, and that's important," said Eric Hauge, policy director for HOME Line, a tenant rights organization that's partly funded by the city of Minneapolis. "The high-publicity, high-stakes apartment sales like the Crossroads in Richfield have raised the profile of this."
In March, the Minneapolis City Council passed a new ordinance that prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to Section 8 voucher holders. A group of Minneapolis landlords sued the city over the law; the case is pending.
Later this year, the City Council will get a report on a series of ideas from city staff. The proposals include requiring landlords to renew tenants' leases unless they have a legal reason to evict them and a measure that would give tenants the right to buy a property from a landlord before he or she can sell it to anyone else.
Another idea is requiring landlords to give the city and tenants advance notice when they intend to sell a building, a proposal introduced by Council Member Lisa Goodman in May. The details aren't worked out, but the idea is that if several parties can bid on a property, the buyer will more likely be one who's interested in preserving affordable units.
Most of the proposals at City Hall have little support from the landlord association.
An advance notice requirement would allow more out-of-state buyers to swoop into the market, landlords say, and giving tenants the right to buy a property would slow down deals and create uncertainty for property owners and renters. People who manage apartments cherish their right to end a relationship with a tenant at the end of a lease, regardless of the reason.
Some form of rent control
"Residents of Minneapolis should be concerned that the policies under consideration by the city would result in more regulation which would mean less investment in affordable rental properties," Rippe said.
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, however, has not had much influence at City Hall lately, and pressure is building for intervention in the rental market.
Rent control in some form — whether forcing landlords to pay to relocate tenants who are priced out of buildings, forbidding landlords from raising rents if buildings have outstanding code violations or imposing more straightforward price controls — should be on the table, tenant rights activists say.
"Right now landlords are making killings on their rent prices because the market is the way it is, and we need to talk about that," said Jennifer Arnold, a tenant organizer with Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice).
Bender said she does not support rent control — she doesn't think it works — but she argues that the lack of affordable housing in Minneapolis is a pressing problem. If the city doesn't do more to solve it, she said, political support for a sweeping measure like rent control will increase, in part because it's easy to understand and rally around.
"When people say we need rent control, they're saying we need to take urgent action to solve a problem that's been mounting for decades, and I agree," Bender said. "We need to take action around housing affordability in our city and stronger protections for renters."