The St. Paul City Council likely won't be able to make any "substantive" changes to a citywide rent control policy in the first year if voters approve it Tuesday, according to the City Attorney's Office.

Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney told a City Council committee Wednesday that the city charter makes it clear that the rent control initiative, if passed, cannot be repealed for one year. Beyond that, there's little existing case law that says what can be done, she said.

"We likely have the ability to amend the ordinance or supplement the ordinance," she said. "But the more substantive changes we make, the more likely we are to have a risk of litigation, and the more likely a court is to overturn that action."

That presents a challenge for Mayor Melvin Carter, who announced Oct. 12 that he plans to vote "yes" on the proposal — but with the caveat, "we can and must make it better, quickly."

The rent control policy, if approved, would be among the most stringent in the country. It would cap annual rent increases in the city at 3%, without exemptions for inflation or new construction.

Council President Amy Brendmoen said she hopes Tierney's explanation will clarify a major point of confusion for voters.

If the measure passes, Tierney said, the City Attorney's Office would review any proposed changes to determine how they might alter what voters approved. The office also must determine what rent stabilization looks like elsewhere and what courts in other states have done, she said. "The goal being looking at it with a lens of making sure that we haven't altered the will of the voters," Tierney said.

Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center, which supports rent control, said these concerns are only a factor for the first 12 months. After that, she said, any changes are possible.

"Quite frankly, we're the only ones who would sue them for this, if they did something that undermined the will of the advocates," said Kaplan. "We're not looking to make it difficult to come up with really practical solutions to make sure that this gets implemented well and implemented effectively."

She acknowledged that this is uncharted territory for the city and said if the proposal passes, advocates are looking forward to spending the first six months learning alongside city officials.

If council found it necessary to make a change, advocates' hope is that it would reach out to all stakeholders for input, Kaplan said.

"They can change the ordinance, and it is their prerogative ... after a year," she said. "Before that, it would have to be something that doesn't act like a repeal, that doesn't feel like a repeal."