It was clear after the events of 2020 that Minneapolis residents would be busy with ballot questions in 2021. Although an amendment to the city charter's language on policing was not presented to voters last year as some had hoped, three City Council members intend to try again starting next week. If the new questions survive a process that begins with formal introduction before the council and continues with the Charter Commission, they'll be added to November's crowded municipal ballot, which includes a citywide vote for mayor and ward votes for all 13 council spots.
What Minneapolitans might not have been expecting, but also appear poised to get, are ballot questions on another topic about which they may or may not have expertise: rental housing. Three other City Council members are tackling that matter. One pair of proposals would deal with evictions. Another proposal would create a mechanism by which residents or the City Council could cap rent increases at some point in the future.
It's the latter of those — rent control — that we present for readers' consideration today. If the description we just gave of the proposal seems nebulous, there's a reason: A state law stands in the way of easy implementation. Minnesota Statute 471.9996, adopted in 1984, prohibits rent control unless an ordinance or charter amendment is approved by a city's voters in a general election. (It followed an earlier, failed push for rent control in Minneapolis.) The language of this year's proposed charter amendment and what legal complications it may face are not yet known. But voters would not be approving a specific rent control policy, only the possibility of one.
On the merits, there's considerable cause for skepticism. Among economists, rent control has long been considered a textbook example of bad public policy, one that messes with the smooth function of the housing market while failing to consistently help those who really need it. Meanwhile, broad averages in rental costs in the Twin Cities area seem stable, though as some argue are outpacing income growth.
Nonetheless, we're cognizant of anecdotal horror stories in which renters, typically in lower-income areas, have faced steep increases and quick decisions about moving. And we're loath to argue against a potentially constructive public debate when one threatens to occur. Here are just a few of the angles voters should keep in mind as the discussion unfolds this year:
• How big of a rent-hike problem is there? Here, a report commissioned by the City Council in 2019 and expected within weeks from the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs may help. We'd be particularly interested in learning whether renters at the lower end of the scale face disproportionate increases.
• Proponents talk about new approaches to rent control. For example, a statewide Oregon policy, approved in 2019, limits annual rent increases for buildings older than 15 years to 7% plus a regional rate of inflation. That's still a generous proposition for landlords, but the fear is that more restrictive policies might follow, and indeed, might be demanded.
• Rent control traditionally has been implemented in locations with restricted supply. Minneapolis recently passed citywide zoning changes that theoretically should boost supply. How might those policies interact?
• What other solutions to housing affordability are untried?
• Do Minneapolis voters wish to nudge open the door for initiative-and-referendum efforts in which complex issues are reduced to slogans?
Minneapolis is a progressive city on the whole, but also one under duress, and it is developing ideological rifts as profound as the urban-rural divide at the state level. Populism vs. stability, higher-income neighborhoods vs. lower-income ones, business leaders vs. political leaders — the prospect of rent control plays into all of these.
As is almost always the case, the heaviest burden of proof is on those wishing to make a change.