The newest battle coming to Minneapolis: Rent control

When even the worst apartments in the city are becoming unaffordable, there's a problem. But rent control is fraught with its own perils.

When even the worst apartments in the city are becoming unaffordable, there's a problem. But rent control is fraught with its own perils.

The activist group Inquilinx Unidxs, Tenants United, has proven to be an intrepid irritation to the Twin Cities’ most prolific landlords as of late.

They’ve organized brigades of low-income renters to halt rent hikes of more than $100, demanded repairs to neglected properties, and pushed back against the seemingly intractable forces of housing displacement in a rapidly developing metro.

Now, to cap the National Renters Week of Action, they’re going to city hall Friday at 2 p.m. to rally for rent control, a notion never before practiced in Minneapolis, and only alluded to by the most progressive of city leaders as a pipe dream.

Inquilinx Unidxs doesn’t have an exact formula for what form of rent control they want. They’re still looking into options, but Friday’s rally will be a message to city council members and candidates.

Minnesota statute generally outlaws rent control. To get it, Minneapolis needs to change the city charter through referendum.

It won’t be easy. Across the country, rent control prohibitions are more the norm than the exception. That’s because price limits seem contrary to the United States’ strong traditions of private property, says University of Minnesota Professor Edward Goetz, who studies housing policy.

“Some economists would argue it would then likely have unintended and negative impacts on the market, because it would constitute in essence a limiting of the income landlords can generate from rental housing,” Goetz says. “The argument is that it then creates a disincentive for the creation of any new rental housing, which over time would lead to a scarcity of rental housing, which would in fact then increase price pressures, rather than alleviate them.”

In New York and San Francisco, rent control has been criticized for doing just that. Yet other places have taken more flexible approaches to rent control than simply establishing a price ceiling and telling landlords to divorce themselves from the love of money.

“There are probably all sorts of options out there, either tying it to changes in inflation, or perhaps related to unit quality,” Goetz says. “All of these things will have their own issues associated with them, so if it’s tied to unit quality, that suggests there has to be some process of inspection, and who does the inspection, how is that cost covered, and so on.”

City council members don't seem to be game. But Ward 9 councilmember Alondra Cano has expressed cautious interest, and the ideas she poses tend toward those more flexible options, such as reserving rent from landlords until they fix up their units into more deserving conditions, and giving tenants stronger due process protections from eviction.

Not surprisingly, Socialist Alternative’s Ward 3 candidate Ginger Jentzen is Minneapolis’ foremost voice on the issue. An organizer for the newly victorious $15 minimum wage movement, she views rent control as a similarly contentious idea that will pick up supporters as time goes on.

“What we experienced [in minimum wage] was a lot of resistance initially, and for years hearing it was illegal for the city to do, or impossible,” Jentzen says. “When we’re talking about working- and middle-class homeowners who are subjected to a kind of heavy section of the tax burden when it comes to property taxes, it’s too often that housing policy is shaped by big developers and the wealthiest.”

Simply relaxing regulations for developers so they’ll build more units in hopes that prices will fall, without implementing strong rent control, is like “operating with one hand tied behind our back without all the tools at our disposal,” she says.

“There’s a lot of anger at the big developers not paying their fair share toward actually building affordable housing, and in some ways too there’s a feeling the city isn’t actually leveraging their power to actually put more on the developers, instead of just continuously incentivizing them."