In a city of mostly renters, St. Paul council considers changes to favor tenants

A woman stands in front of a group of people
St. Paul Ward 4 Council Member Mitra Jalali unveils proposed tenant protections policy on Wednesday at City Hall.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Landlord Sandy’Ci Moua isn’t a regular at city meetings, but she showed up Wednesday to learn about a newly proposed ordinance that could change what she knows about prospective tenants.

Growing up, Moua said, she shared a rented studio apartment with her parents and three siblings.

“We were extremely poor,” she said.

That’s why Moua, who owns fewer than 10 units, tries to make sure she is a fair and helpful landlord for her tenants.

She has been both a renter and a landlord in a city where more than 50 percent of residents identify as renters totaling 57,621 households, according to St. Paul officials. They report 83 percent of African American households rent, compared to 41 percent of white households.

“We take very seriously the fact that we have a responsibility to not discriminate and we do that,” Moua said.

She’s concerned about the language in the proposed ordinance, which includes limiting security deposits to one month’s rent and background checks related to rental, criminal and credit history.

Ward 4 Council Member Mitra Jalali and Mayor Melvin Carter support the ordinance.

Jalali said city leaders engaged with nearly 300 residents at 14 community events and looked to other cities across the country, including Minneapolis, for guidance.

"We really heard across the board from landlords, from tenants, advocates and community partners,” Jalali said, that “there is just a tremendous lack of commonly held knowledge about what tenant rights and responsibilities actually are and the resources that exist to get help if you need it.”

Naysha Paw, a tenant and Youth Organizer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, is interested in the proposed requirement that landlords give a just cause notice to tenants they don’t intend to renew because of nonpayment of rent or repeated late payments.

“It’s emotionally damaging to be kicked out of your home for no apparent reason,” Paw said.

The senior at Central High School assists tenants in requesting repairs. She’s also an advocate for an advance notice of sale policy, which stipulates notice of an affordable property’s sale before it hits the market.

Cecil Smith, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said landlords are deeply concerned with the current wording of the proposed ordinance.

"There's both very direct impacts on owners’ and managers’ ability to safely manage their properties and maintain affordable rents,” Smith said. “That affects the entire community and the safety and affordability of the entire community, when an owner or manager has a regulatory intervention which is as significant as what is being proposed.”

The city of St. Paul should tackle the lack of affordable housing instead, Smith said.

“They’re trying to solve a problem, but I don’t think they’ve understood what the problem is,” he said. “We have an affordable housing crisis, we need to produce more housing, we are not hearing and we haven’t seen any data that says there is a tenant protection crisis.”

Moua hopes city leaders will engage with more landlords like her in the coming weeks.

“I’m willing to take risks on renters, but I want it to be on my terms, my choice,” Moua said. “The city cannot dictate it to me because they have never scrubbed a carpet five times just to get the smoke out. They can make policies, but they haven’t done that type of work. I want better solutions, but ordinances are not the way.”

If passed, the ordinance would take effect next year. The city will hold a public hearing on tenant protections in the coming weeks.

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