As Board directors for the West Side Community Organization (WSCO), the district planning council for Saint Paul’s mulit-ethnic enclave across the Mississippi River from downtown, our work has long been involved with housing justice. Injustice and displacement have impacted the West Side for generations and the Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the already precarious housing conditions of many long-term West Side residents. But that is not all.
The social unrest that has erupted in the Twin Cities is not only a response to the murder of George Floyd and others at the hands of the police. It is a response to other racial injustices, against Black and Brown communities, with housing injustice as just one of them. Community has spoken at a magnitude and collective clarity few of us have ever witnessed in our lifetime. The listening has happened and now is the time to act. We will not stand for injustice, we will not make excuses for inaction, and we are pressing elected officials to make meaningful change that protects the basic needs of every individual and family.
That’s why WSCO so strongly supports the S.A.F.E renter protection ordinances coming before the Saint Paul City Council on June 24th for a public hearing and final vote.
Right now, more than half of Saint Paul residents are renters and on the West Side nearly 48 percent of our households are tenants. Nearly 52 percent of our renters pay more than they can afford (defined as 30 percent of monthly income on housing).
We understand the rental experience from multiple perspectives. Currently, our households are paying mortgages on single family homes but we have both been renters in the recent past. Martin is even a landlord with a rental property in his home city. We know many renters in our community: they are our neighbors, our relatives, our fellow WSCO board directors. Most of all, they are our friends.
Our leaders often tout Saint Paul as “the most livable city in America,” and “a city that works for all.” As people of color, we know that the American housing system has not worked for our communities. Because of restrictive covenants and redlining that have barred households of color from homeownership for generations, 83% of African-American households and 67% of Latinx households in Saint Paul are renters, compared to 41% of White households.
Currently in Saint Paul:
- A landlord can decide to not renew your lease for no reason. Just Cause Notice would provide protection for tenants, who have been paying their rent and haven’t violated any agreement with the landlord. This is already the law statewide for residents of manufactured home parks.
- With outside investors coming into our neighborhoods to buy, upscale and push our neighbors out of their rental homes, landlords have no obligation to keep rents affordable when they plan to sell. The proposed 90-day Advance Notice of Sale would mean tenants could plan their departure or try to access resources to preserve their homes, rather than being forced into crisis mode.
- There is currently no limit on what a landlord can charge a tenant for a security deposit. The proposed Security Deposit Limit would mean landlords can’t charge more than one month’s rent, creating a far more reasonable standard that more low-income people could afford.
- For some of our neighbors, there’s no such thing as a second chance. The ordinance would implement proven Tenant Screening Reforms that would continue to safeguard our families but stop screening out responsible and rehabilitated renters who are constantly forced into substandard housing or homelessness because of poor decisions — or the impact of racist institutions — many years ago. As a landlord himself, Martin knows that “bad credit” renters are no more of a risk than “good credit” renters. And those with a criminal conviction have an increased incentive to be a model tenant because an eviction could mean a possible return to incarceration -- or worse.
We know that not all landlords are exploiting their tenants. Many “mom and pop” landlords are going to great lengths to provide safe and affordable housing for our friends and neighbors — but, at the end of the day, they still make ends meet. That’s why there’s a landlord mitigation fund so, if a tenant causes damage to a unit or doesn’t pay their rent, a property owner can access resources to make their investment whole.
We need to remember who’s really paying the bills, though. In so many of these discussions, landlords immediately cite a violation of their property rights, their ability to run their business as they choose. But it’s the tenants who pay the landlords’ mortgage through their rent. It’s the tenants’ resources that are building the landlord’s equity and wealth — and they have property rights, too. Landlords have chosen an occupation that is about more than making a profit; it’s about the most fundamental human right to shelter.
There are large corporate landlords, represented by the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, that are fomenting opposition to the current ordinance. They are cherry-picking extreme anecdotes to paint all renters who would benefit from these modest policies as a threat to their neighbors and landlords' livelihood. We reject those dog whistle politics, that play on racist and xenophobic fears, and commend our city leaders for hearing the voices of renters — in addition to landlords — in the months-long public process that informed this ordinance.
These proposed tenant protection policies are about basic justice and housing stability. Protections aren’t needed if everyone’s rights are secured and everyone involved is treated with the same human dignity. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a “city that works for all.” People who rent are at a disproportionate level of risk and landlords are at a disproportionate level of privilege.
Currently, only two City Councilmembers have called for the complete adoption of the ordinance as is, while the other council members have proposed amendments to delay implementation until July 2021 (a full six months later than originally proposed), exempt three and four-unit buildings from the advance notice of sale, and exempt Section 8 voucher-holders from tenant protections. In addition, for weeks we have seen the majority of Councilmembers in contention with the Just Cause stipulation, a concern that has been continuously refuted on the basis that the ordinance will in no way interfere with the current permissible grounds for eviction. These hang-ups are not only disheartening, they are dangerous to the communities that are continuously at highest risk.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker and others on the council have proposed amendments that undermine the ordinances and will not benefit the tenants they claim to support.
At a City Hall press conference months ago to announce these ordinances, WSCO and other community organizations stood shoulder to shoulder with Ms. Noecker and other Council Members who authored the ordinances. Now, in at best a misguided and at worst a highly disrespectful turn to those same community groups, some of those same Council Members appear to be turning their backs on those same community folks.
We urge everyone to contact your council member and demand them to answer the call of the community. This is their opportunity to create protections for renters that should have been there in the first place, and meaningful obligations for landlords in the way they conduct their business.
We must pass the proposed ordinance without amendments in order to provide protections for tenants and shift power towards a more balanced system of benefit for all.
Monica Marrocco and Martin Hernandez
West Side Community Organization Board Directors