When Erica Valliant moved into her rented house in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, the mother of five hoped that was the end of her family's struggle to find a place to live.
Over the past two years, though, Valliant's rent has risen a total of more than $200 a month — a pattern she fears will become unsustainable.
"In my head, if I know this is the pattern, I know that I have to plan to find somewhere else that I can afford," said Valliant, who has experienced homelessness. "Because the pattern to me is that it's gonna go up every year."
But for Valliant and other St. Paul renters, that could all change in November when voters decide whether to approve what would likely be the nation's most stringent rent control policy. While supporters say the proposal — which would cap annual hikes at 3% — would help keep rents affordable and provide stability to low-income tenants, opponents say it will have the opposite effect by discouraging development in the Twin Cities' already tight housing market.
Members of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents property owners and landlords, are "gravely concerned" about the implications of the ballot proposal, said President Cecil Smith.
"It's the wrong solution to that problem," he said, calling the proposal "draconian." "It's going to lead to less development, lead to deterioration of the housing stock, and the availability of existing rentals could shrink."
How proposal is different
Hundreds of cities across the country have adopted rent control, or rent stabilization, policies aimed at keeping housing affordable for low-income renters. Voters in Minneapolis will consider their own ballot question in November that would allow the City Council to enact rent control in the future.
What makes St. Paul's proposed policy different is that it does not include exemptions for new construction or inflation. Without those exemptions, the policy could be one of the strictest in the world, said Bill Lindeke, a former Planning Commission member who said he signed the petition in support of the proposal before he learned more about what it would entail.
"I'm pretty convinced that this proposal would stop new homes from being built in the city — like, thousands of new homes each year," Lindeke said. "That is a problem because that will drive up housing costs and make it really hard to find an apartment."
'Need to shift the status quo'
But supporters say the capital city needs to take drastic action to address the housing crisis.
"We're actually proud to be leading the nation in advancing housing justice, because we talk a lot about how we're in a housing crisis and we really need to shift the status quo," said Carolyn Szczepanski, communication manager for Housing Equity Now St. Paul (HENS), which wrote the proposed policy. "We've done the research, we've talked to local folks, we've looked across the country."
Rent control seeks to protect renters from unpredictable rent increases that could force them out of their housing, said HENS campaign manager Tram Hoang. The campaign collected and submitted more than 9,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
"We chose 3% because it fits St. Paul's market, it fits St. Paul's housing reality, which is that rent doesn't go up more than 3% for the majority of people, but people of color and low-income renters are more likely to see it [higher than 3%]," Hoang said.
If passed, the ordinance would require the city to establish a process for landlords to request exemptions on rent increases due to changes in property taxes, capital improvements and other factors.
Harder on lower incomes
Researchers at the Center for Urban & Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota found in a Minneapolis-focused study this year that rent stabilization would not affect most properties. But the big-picture numbers hid different realities, said CURA Director Edward Goetz.
"When you look at the low end of the market in Minneapolis, you actually see a different picture, you see much larger rent increases in percentage terms, therefore much greater hardship on the part of renters," he said, adding that the same is likely true in St. Paul.
Laura Delventhal lives in income-restricted, subsidized housing in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. Still, her rent has increased more than 22% in the past 3 ½ years. Absorbing these costs as a family has been distressing for Delventhal personally, and for families in the neighborhood who are seeing hikes without the protections her home has.
"It's just so clear to me how deep the problem is and how important it is for us to make rent stabilization happen so that every single one of us, no matter our socioeconomic background, our race ... St. Paul is our home," Delventhal said.
Elected officials divided
Support for the proposal varies among elected officials.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has yet to take a stance on rent control. City Council Members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang have been public in their support. Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she was still researching the proposal, and Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Member Dai Thao did not respond to requests for comment.
Council Member Chris Tolbert said he plans to vote "no." Council Member Jane Prince, who ran for re-election on housing issues in 2019, also said she can't support the ballot initiative as written. To Prince, the proposal will discourage more affordable housing from being built in St. Paul.
"It's been a landlords' market for years. Because of a shortage of units, rents have been able to go up and the market is more competitive. The way to deal with that is to increase the supply of housing, I really believe this is counterproductive," she said.
But Frogtown Neighborhood Association organizer Danielle Swift stressed that the proposal looks at rent control through the perspective of the renter.
" 'Strict' is looking at it from the landlord's perspective, from a developer's perspective, and not looking at it from a renter's perspective," Swift said. "This initiative is for the protection of the renter."
612-673-7112 • @zoemjack