Minneapolis rent control proposal takes step forward

But a mayoral veto could limit citizen input on a future policy

The Jax Apartments in northeast Minneapolis
Apartments in northeast Minneapolis, where rent control could become a reality.
Martin Moylan | MPR News 2019

An effort to bring rent control to Minneapolis will take another step toward fruition Friday. 

The Minneapolis City Council is expected to approve of language contained in two measures that would give voters and the council the authority to set caps on rent. However, one of the proposals, which would allow citizen-driven referendums on rent control policies, appears to be especially vulnerable to a veto by the mayor.  

The first proposal would give the council the authority to craft rent control policies, which is currently banned under state law. That proposal moved forward earlier this week after council members supported it 11-1. 

The second ballot question would allow city residents to gather signatures on petitions for rent control policies, which could then either be enacted by ordinance by the council or put before voters on their ballots. That citizen-initiated ballot question moved forward earlier this week with only seven votes in favor.  

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Even if the ballot questions are passed by the council Friday, both questions could be subject to a veto by Mayor Jacob Frey, which requires nine council members to overturn it. Frey has said he opposes the option that would let city residents petition to put rent control policies directly before voters. 

Earlier this week, council member Andrew Johnson voted against the citizen-initiated rent control ballot question in committee, although he supported the proposal that gives the council authority to enact rent control policies.

“I personally have reservations about this one,” Johnson said at the meeting of the council’s Policy and Government Oversight Committee. “We need to have an intentional conversation and study session about initiative via referendum because it would be a really big change in departure from how we legislate as a city.” 

The two ballot questions were proposed by City Council President Lisa Bender and council members Jeremiah Ellison and Cam Gordon. Bender said they settled on the citizen-initiated ballot question after working for years to try to create more protections for renters. 

“At the end of the day, this is a very narrow application of citizen petition that would only apply to rent stabilization and not to any other sort of policy proposal, and it is responding to the state law,” Bender said. 

Council member Linea Palmisano warned that ignoring the advice of city attorneys could land the city in court for “many years to come.” 

Activists with the coalition Minneapolis United for Rent Control called for supporters to “pack City Hall” on Friday morning to put pressure on council members. 

Minneapolis voters in November will already consider a ballot question that would replace the city’s Police Department with a new department of public safety, which supporters say would emphasize a “public health” approach to safety in the city. 

Advocates will be in court Monday to challenge the city’s attachment of “explanatory language” on the public safety ballot question, which they argue would mislead voters. City staff have said they’ve attached the language to the ballot question in order to avoid confusing voters. A group opposing the charter amendment has argued that the explanatory language just tells voters “what the amendment would actually do if passed.” 

The public safety ballot question has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from across the country. 

The coalition group Yes 4 Minneapolis, which supports the public safety ballot question, reported raising almost a million dollars this year, nearly half of which is in-kind donations. In addition to funding from hundreds of small-dollar donors, the group also received large donations from national progressive groups and local civil rights groups. 

The opposition group All of Minneapolis reported raising over $100,000 last month from just under two dozen donors. 

Another ballot question that would restructure the city government to give the mayor’s office more executive authority was sent back to committee.  Unless they schedule a special meeting, the council is expected to take up the final language of that proposal on Aug. 20, which is the deadline for getting the question on the ballot in time for the fall election.