Minneapolis resident-driven rent control proposal falls short of council support for November ballot

The Jax Apartments in northeast Minneapolis
The Jax Apartments in northeast Minneapolis. A charter amendment that would have allowed Minneapolis residents to bring rent control policies directly to a general vote will not be on the November ballot.
Martin Moylan | MPR News 2019

A charter amendment that would have allowed Minneapolis residents to bring rent control policies directly to a general vote will not be on the November ballot, after the city council failed to overturn Mayor Jacob Frey’s veto Friday.

Housing advocates had pushed for the citizen-driven referendum, arguing that the Minneapolis City Council process took too long and was too often beholden to real estate interests. But Frey and some council members opposed the amendment, saying referendums aren’t the way to create strong policies.

City voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on another proposal that would give the city council the authority to institute its own rent control policies, which is banned under state law without voter approval.

The council needed nine votes to overturn the veto, but only received seven. Council Member Andrew Johnson was one of five members who opposed the citizen-driven referendum. He said during the meeting that he believes that rent stabilization measures are needed, but that he prefers the city council process that’s included in the other proposal as a better way to address “this complex issue.”

“I believe our existing legislative process will produce a better policy through a better process,” Johnson said.

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said the citizen-driven referendum was only necessary because of a state law. Supporters argued that St. Paul gives citizens a similar power, which they said hasn’t been abused.

“This isn’t a slippery slope,” Ellison said. “I think all the good governance debates here are nullified by the fact that there aren’t many laws written this way, and that create these kinds of barriers.”

Frey said in his veto letter last Friday that he believes the city shouldn’t legislate via referendum.

“Good policy requires a data-driven approach, guidance from experts, and a process that is open to everyone and accountable to everyone – not just a single interest group,” Frey said. “We should not be in the business of forgoing these criteria and outsourcing our core responsibility as elected representatives.”

Council President Lisa Bender said the veto was related to other efforts, including another charter amendment to reorganize city government, that she said aim to restore the “power to the wealthiest, most powerful people in our city.”

“There are special interests in our city who want to make it as difficult as possible to put a cap on their unlimited income,” Bender said. “These are the same folks who are at the table behind closed doors at City Hall.”

Most landlords wouldn’t be affected by rent control policies because they keep rent increases modest, said Council Member Steve Fletcher. But he said substantial and unexpected rent increases can destabilize people’s lives.

“Every year when our leases are renewed, there’s always that feeling in the pit of your stomach, is this going to be the year that something sudden happens and I suddenly have to uproot my life?” Fletcher asked.

Council members Kevin Reich, Lisa Goodman, Andrew Johnson, Linea Palmisano and Alondra Cano voted against overturning the mayor’s veto. Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins abstained, after explaining that she had concerns about possible impacts on “mom and pop” landlords. She disclosed that she’s a landlord and decided to abstain even though the Minneapolis city attorney’s office told her it wasn’t necessary.

Minneapolis United for Rent Control, the group that pushed for the citizen-driven referendum, said in a statement it condemned the outcome, and criticized council members who the group said changed their stances.

“We saw how Mayor Frey, the city attorney and the Charter Commission tried to do the dirty work of corporate landlords,” said organizer Ginger Jentzen. “Now, we can make no mistake: the real estate lobby will take their fight from the backrooms of City Hall to raise open hostility to the substance of rent control.”

The charter amendment that would give the city council the authority to pass its own rent control policies will join another proposal on voters’ ballots that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety, which supporters say would prioritize a “public health” approach to policing.

The council also approved Friday another charter amendment that would reorganize city government to give the mayor’s office more executive power. The Minneapolis city election is scheduled for Nov. 2.

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