In 2015, a powerful area real estate developer purchased an apartment complex in Richfield. The new owner rebranded the property “Concierge,” raised rents, and instituted income and credit-score requirements for new tenants. For the – at the time – current tenants of the building, this meant eviction. Nearly 670 households were displaced as a result of this “up-marketing.” 195 of the tenants filed a class-action lawsuit and eventually won a $605,000 settlement in federal court. In reality, this amounted to about $1,600 per tenant after legal fees were distributed, which is little more than the current monthly rent at the Concierge apartments for a one-bedroom apartment (which is now owned by a California-based holding company).
Under a proposed rent stabilization ballot initiative by the group Housing Equity Now Saint Paul (or HENS as they are colloquially calling themselves) the egregious example of gentrification at the “Concierge” would not be possible.
HENS is seeking to garner enough petition signatures to place the initiative in front of Saint Paul voters in the 2021 municipal election that would cap rent increases at 3-5% year over year for all Saint Paul properties (the organization is still deciding what the exact percentage will be). To place it on the ballot, HENS will need the endorsement of 8% of the number of registered Saint Paul voters who voted in the previous mayoral election (about 5,000). If the petition is successful and the ballot initiative passes in November, it would be the most progressive protection against the displacement caused by “free market” housing in the state of Minnesota, and put the city on par with peers like New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Washington DC.
Critics of the initiative, and you can bet there will be plenty who are backed by the city’s powerful real-estate developers, will cite the “bad economics” of price controls that will limit supply and lead to urban blight. One need not look farther than our current housing crisis to see that it is not market-controls that are the problem, of which there are very little, but the free-market for housing itself. Their error comes from believing that the housing market operates as a single market, when in fact it operates as a handful of markets with different price brackets.
While the national and regional housing market has been booming for high-rent and high-margin luxury apartments that are suitable for middle-class renters and families, the supply of housing that is 30% or less of income for a working-class renter or family has consequently shrunk.
The 2019 Minnesota State of the State’s Housing Report the percent of renters in Ramsey County who are severely housing burdened (paying more than 50% of their income in rent) was 25%.
The same report shows that while rent has increased an average of 9% in the county from 2010-2017, renter’s income has actually decreased by 10% at the same time. The consequences of this have never been more apparent then the shameful rise in the number of homeless encampments in the Twin Cities, whose residents are disproportionately people of color and the disabled.
Critics will further declare that such a rent stabilization policy will discourage future real-estate investments in Saint Paul. Another way to think about this is that it will clear out the city of price-gouging landlords who are placing their bottom lines ahead of the livelihoods of their tenants and the health of our communities.
A 3-5% increase in rents still allows for a landlord to profit, but it asks for that profitability to be balanced with the affordability of the essential human right of housing. Furthermore, any gap in the supply of housing that is caused by this market control should only increase the call for the city and county to step in to provide more public housing, a conversation which will certainly be welcome among housing advocates.
Privileged Saint Paul residents are quick to demonstrate their aesthetic of progressivism; I saw no shortage of “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs in the wake of George Floyd’s murder this summer. The time has never been more urgent than for us to put our money where our mouth is: sign the HENs petition and vote “yes” on rent stabilization in November.