Denise Herrera Bello is just one of many renters pushing for the passage of rent control in Minneapolis in November. Here, she sits in front of her apartment in south Minneapolis on August 3rd, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The Minneapolis City Council voted to send two rent control charter amendments to voters in a meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

After a two-hour-long remote discussion, the Council voted on two questions which, if passed by a majority of Minneapolis voters in November, would allow the city to enact rent control ordinances. The policy would be drafted either by citizens’ groups or the city itself. While the details of any ordinance would be determined in the future, such a measure could cap annual rent increases at between 3 and 10 percent and grant tenants the opportunity to purchase their buildings if property owners seek to sell.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has publicly expressed that he will veto one or both of the ballot measures. However, the City Council could override any veto with nine “yes” votes. The Council would have to do so before the deadline to submit the ballot questions to the Hennepin County auditor on August 20.

In a preliminary vote on July 21, the Council approved both rent control amendments—which would ask the public in November to choose who will have the authority to write the particular language—over objections from the City Attorney’s Office and Charter Commission. Council President Lisa Bender and Council members Cam Gordon and Jeremiah Ellison co-authored the proposals.

On Wednesday afternoon, just one council member, Linea Palmisano of Ward 13, voted against approving language to amend Article IV of the city’s charter, which would open a pathway to enacting rent control through a City Council-led ordinance.

The citizen petition initiative prompted more discussion during the meeting, but the question passed with seven “yes” votes and four “no” votes, from Palmisano, Andrew Johnson of Ward 12, Lisa Goodman of Ward 7, and Kevin Reich of Ward 1. Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins of Ward 8 abstained.

“It takes us many, many, many years to get any housing policy through our process,” said Bender of Ward 10. “When the low-income renters who have championed this policy for many years say to me, ‘We just don’t trust the city to make good on your promise to get this done,’ it’s hard for me to say, ‘Oh no, this will be different.’”

Ellison of Ward 5, an amendment co-author, said both avenues to rent control are necessary. The measure allowing citizens to make change through the initiative process is somewhat more controversial, since the city doesn’t typically allow charter changes by petition.

“This does not open up a whole can of worms for citizen petition to happen on every topic,” Ellison said. “We can get maybe a little carried away with how this might be a slippery slope, how this could be applied to other state laws, but other laws aren’t written like this one.”

What rent control would look like in Minneapolis

Rent control, or stabilization, refers to laws and ordinances that regulate how much landlords can increase rent each year. Cities across the country have enacted such policies, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Newark. Oregon passed statewide rent control in 2019.

To enact rent control in Minneapolis, residents would have to vote to amend the city’s charter, which acts as a sort of constitution. Currently, state law restricts the city from enacting rent control unless approved in a general election. If voters choose to change the charter, the next task would be to determine the details of the policy.

The City Council first introduced the amendment proposals in January. Since then, council members, advocates, and the Charter Commission, which oversees the city’s charter, have been debating what will be presented to voters on November 2.

Based on the Council’s decisions on Wednesday—and assuming the Council overrides any veto from Mayor Frey—Minneapolis voters will be presented with two options for amending the charter in the upcoming election.

The first would grant the City Council the authority to create a rent control ordinance in the future and submit the language as a ballot question. In this case, residents would get to vote to enact the ordinance.

The ballot amendment reads:

Amending Article IV of the City Charter relating to City Council: Function, to be submitted to the voters at the November 2, 2021, municipal election, pertaining to adding authority for the Council to adopt a rent control ordinance or a rent stabilization ordinance to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis and to submit a rent control or rent stabilization ballot question to qualified voters to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis.”

The second charter amendment would—through an initiative process—give residents the opportunity to write the rent control policy, collect signatures in support of the effort, and enact the ordinance.

It reads:“Amending Article I of the City Charter relating to General Provisions: Powers, to be submitted to the voters at the November 2, 2021, municipal election, pertaining to adding authority for registered voters of the City of Minneapolis to propose, by initiative, a rent stabilization ordinance to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis.

Housing inequality in the Twin Cities

Residential rents have increased dramatically in the Twin Cities in recent years, driven by high demand and low vacancy rates. The trends have especially affected communities of color in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Housing Partnership reported that, over the past 20 years, Hennepin County renters have been the most cost-burdened, with tens of thousands paying more than 30 percent of their incomes monthly. In the Twin Cities, 44 percent of white renters are cost-burdened, compared to 57 percent of Black renters, 54 percent of Latino renters, and nearly 60 percent of Indigenous renters.

During the last two decades, the overall portion of Twin Cities renters considered cost-burdened has increased from 36 percent to 45 percent. 

Abdulahi Farah is the lead organizer for the Muslim Coalition of ISAIAH, a St. Paul-based  interfaith civic engagement group. ISAIAH is one of five organizations that make up the Home To Stay Coalition, a collaboration between local unions and community organizations. Abdulahi noted that the income-to-rent disparity for immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis is also stark.

“This is an area many people don’t pay attention to,” Abdulahi said of immigrant renters. “The reason we’re involved is, it’s a way to stabilize our community so that we’re making sure that families aren’t under stress of running in the rat wheel to come up with rent.”

Minnesota is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to racial disparities in homeownership, which drives people of color into a tight rental market.

According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership, while 75 percent of white households in the Twin Cities own homes, just 40 percent of households made up of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are homeowners. Among Twin Cities counties, the disparity is highest in Hennepin County, where 71 percent of white households own homes compared to 34 percent of households made up of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The homeownership rate for Black families is 22 percent.

According to New York-based New American Economy, a research group that studies the economic contributions of immigrants in the United States, 24.8 percent of immigrant and refugee households in Minneapolis owned homes in 2019, compared to 52.6 percent of U.S.-born residents.

Who is fighting for rent control?

While Bender, Gordon, and Ellison co-authored the rent control proposals adopted by the Minneapolis City Council on Wednesday, the Home To Stay Coalition has also been pushing for rent stabilization in Minneapolis.

Abdulahi has been knocking on doors to garner support for the rent control charter amendments. “We’re not asking for a lot. Let the people in Minneapolis vote,” Abdulahi said. “Because we know that, overwhelmingly, they’ll vote for this to get passed.”

Another member of the Home To Stay Coalition, Denise Herrera Bello, currently lives in the Sky Without Limits Community in the Corcoran neighborhood of south Minneapolis. “We’re in the process of forming our cooperative right now,” Herrera Bello said in a translated interview with Sahan Journal. “We all have the same vision of being able to own our buildings ourselves, as a community. But we’re still figuring out a lot of what that will look like.”

In 2017, 5,400 tenants in five apartment buildings sued their landlord, Stephen Frenz, in the largest tenant-led class action lawsuit in Minnesota history. Frenz’s rental license was taken away and he was later convicted of perjury, in 2019.

Sky Without Limits resulted from that legal action. The cooperative refurbished the buildings with the help of Land Bank Twin Cities, which is working with tenants to manage the buildings and eventually finance a purchase.

Under the housing cooperative, Herrera Bello typically pays upward of $850 per month in rent. Since she’s currently working for Sky Without Limits, however, she gets a discount and pays $750 instead. With Frenz as landlord, Herrera Bello said rents ranged from $960 to $1,100. She and her neighbors sometimes saw monthly increases of $50 to $100.

While Herrera Bello doesn’t immediately face the threat of a rent increase, she’s been working with United Renters for Justice, an organization that’s part of the Home To Stay Coalition, to raise support for the rent control charter amendments.

“I think it would still have a great impact,” Herrera Bello said. “Yes, I’m in this situation with some of my neighbors that we live in a cooperative. But, I’m still seeing displacement happening in my neighborhood.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.