Mayor Carter calls for exemption to St. Paul rent control policy

The Mayor of St. Paul speaks to the press
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaks at a press conference in September 2020. On Tuesday, the mayor said he'd like to see the city's rent control initiative include a 15-year exemption for new housing — and have that exemption be retroactive.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2020

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter says he'd like to see the city's rent control initiative include a 15-year exemption for new housing — and have that exemption be retroactive.

That was among the policy proposals Carter outlined Tuesday during his State of the City address.

The mayor also said he's going to seek federal funding to add more officers to the city's police force after a notable political battle over the department during budget talks last year. And he also said he'll impose additional restrictions on the use of no-knock warrants.

The proposed rent control exemption comes after voters in November supported a ballot measure capping annual rent increases at 3 percent.

That ballot measure drew the ire of developers and builders who've said they can't attract the money to build new housing in the city if rent increases are limited by the new ordinance — due to take effect in May.

On Tuesday, Carter proposed what he called a rolling 15-year exemption from the cap for landlords and tenants of new housing.

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"Every single city that we can find with the rent stabilization policy in place provides an exemption to incentivize construction of new housing units, and so should St. Paul," he said. "We cannot afford to lose the thousands of housing units currently on pause while we wait for bureaucratic processes at City Hall to run their course."

The exemption would mean any future housing would not be subject to the city's rent control action for the first 15 years after it's built. Carter confirmed it would be retroactive — so for example, a 10-year-old apartment would have five more years of exemption.

When asked Tuesday, city officials did not immediately say how many units or what percent of the city's housing would qualify for the exemption. But Carter said it would involve thousands of apartments, townhomes and other housing units.

At least some rent control supporters were deeply opposed to the mayor's proposal.

"This appears to be something that is kind of gutting a large part of the ordinance that was passed by the voters," said Margaret Kaplan, president of the St. Paul-based Housing Justice Center. "I don't understand what a backward-looking exemption, what kind of problem that's trying to solve at all. It's not that the developers are going to unbuild the buildings that they have."

Carter said he would hand the rent control ordinance over to the City Council — and when asked Tuesday, Council President Amy Brendmoen was decidedly noncommittal about acting on the mayor's proposal. She said the city's advisory panel on rent control should address it first. But Carter also addressed that group on Tuesday, and made his intentions clear.

"I believe that authentic engagement means, frankly, me not wasting your time," he told the group. "And so I developed a practice that if I have already developed a conclusion on something, I'm not going to ask you to spend a day or a week or three weeks or a month coming up with some recommendations on some element that I already know the direction that I want to move forward on."

How the mayor's proposal advances. or doesn't advance, could turn into a pitched political and legal battle moving forward — and have some major implications for what Minneapolis develops as its own rent control policy.

Carter's address also focused on public safety. He said he'll seek federal grant money to expand a second police academy class this year, despite some calls on the City Council to shrink the department. He also said he'll implement additional no-knock warrant restrictions, in the wake of the recent police killing of Amir Locke in Minneapolis. Carter also said he would work to curb traffic stops that aren't based on public safety and also vehicle pursuits.

And the mayor also said he'll ask the City Council to approve an ordinance mandating locked storage of firearms in the city away from ammunition.

Carter and his father, according to MPR News reporting, have reported five guns lost or stolen themselves in recent years. Carter's father is a former police officer, who has joined his son at press conferences decrying gun violence. When asked about the proposed policy on Tuesday, Carter said he believes it's an appropriate response to a recent rise in crime.

Other initiatives announced Tuesday include moving some city staff into empty skyway storefronts to help bring some traffic back downtown. Carter also said he was having conversations with the council and health experts on ending pandemic measures — but he wouldn't put a date on the end of a mask mandate for indoor public spaces in the city.