After weeks of door knocking in 90-degree weather, housing advocates in St. Paul delivered more than 9,000 signatures from residents petitioning the city to put rent control on its November ballot.
Now organizers say their focus will shift to winning over voters to support the proposed 3% cap to rent increases on residential properties.
"We have spoken to thousands of renters, thousands of homeowners and thousands of people who live in St. Paul, care about the city and want to keep the city home for everyone," said Tram Hoang, a policy advocate for the Alliance, one of the community groups in the Housing Equity Now St. Paul (HENS) coalition that led the push for the ballot measure.
Ramsey County election staff accepted a box of petitions Tuesday and began the process of counting and verifying signatures. The group far surpassed the 5,000 needed to add an initiative to ballots in St. Paul.
"This is just the start of a housing movement that's actually going to make sure that people stay in St. Paul, that renters actually get treated well and get treated with respect," said Brian Rosas, an organizer with HENS.
More than half the city's residents live in rental housing. While the proposed cap would benefit all renters, Hoang said the policy is aimed at helping low-income residents and people of color, who she said often see "more outrageous" rent increases that may force them out of their homes and neighborhoods.
Data from the University of Minnesota show that for most landlords, a 3% annual rent increase is enough to cover jumps in property taxes or the costs of capital improvements, Hoang said. If not, property owners could request an exemption to the proposed rule.
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents property owners, has condemned the St. Paul effort and argued that rent control could worsen the city's affordable housing shortage.
"Should the rent control ordinance be on the ballot we are confident that the voters of St. Paul will reject this extreme measure," the group said in a statement Tuesday. "The proposal will only discourage investment in St. Paul, especially in housing, and make rental housing less accessible for new residents."
Mayor Melvin Carter has not taken a position on whether the city should cap rent hikes. "I look forward to our public conversation about the role rent stabilization might play in our broader affordable housing strategy," he said in a statement Tuesday.
In Minneapolis, the city's Charter Commission is considering two proposals that could serve as paths to a rent control ordinance — one would allow elected officials to create a policy, while the other would pose the question to voters.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has said he does not support rent control "in its classic form," arguing policies in cities like New York have not made housing more affordable.
Hoang said those crafting the St. Paul proposal learned from other cities' mistakes. If approved by a majority of voters in November, the new policy would take effect May 1, 2022.
"We're trying to stabilize rents. We know that rents change," she said. "What we're trying to do is make sure they don't change at a pace that displaces people."
Bahieh Hartshorn, a 27-year-old resident of St. Paul's West Side, said she moved within the city three times in three years after graduating college because she couldn't afford annual rent hikes of $100 or $200 each month.
"This would make me feel that I can establish roots in the neighborhood I love," she said of the ballot initiative.
For the first time in several years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and urban unrest, the rental market in the Twin Cities is closer to what's considered a balance between supply and demand.
The average vacancy rate in St. Paul at the end of March was 5.5%, up slightly from the same time last year and nearly a full percentage point higher than for the broader metro area, according to a first-quarter report from Marquette Advisors, which tracks market-rate rentals not including senior rentals. (The market is considered balanced when the vacancy is 5%).
The average rent in the city was $1,251, a 2.3% increase over last year but slightly below the metro average.
In downtown St. Paul, the average vacancy rate was much higher — nearly 11% — and rents were flat compared with last year.
Staff writer Jim Buchta contributed to this report.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478