St. Paulites agree housing is a human right; city council needs to catch up


Universal provision of housing makes everyone healthier and safer. Stable rent benefits neighborhoods in a plethora of ways. Housing-first programs have demonstrated drug use, sex work, theft and other crimes of desperation can be drastically reduced by giving everyone a safe and stable home. Housing as a human right is a radical concept, but it’s one the city of St. Paul is ready to get behind – if city council doesn’t thwart us.

Housing as a commodity hasn’t worked for our city. Racial covenants and racist housing practices paid dividends for white workers and homeowners through the 20th century and have made local property developers and out of state investors very rich. Owning a home gives me, and other people like me (with generational wealth and supports) an opportunity to have stable rent in perpetuity. But the wealth gap and current value of housing have made it so that a safe and dignified home is out of reach for anyone who doesn’t have access to generational wealth. Our regional prosperity is matched only by our regional inequity.

I saw displacement and gentrification happen in Minneapolis, as my neighborhoods transformed around me and the residents who gave the neighborhoods their character and vibrancy were forced out by rising rents. As a renter organizer on St. Paul’s Eastside, I’ve talked to dozens of renters who are either suffering from 30%-40% rent increases (even in subsidized housing) or are forced out of their homes of many years. This is due to their homes’ commodity status. Investors know housing in St. Paul is a very good bet, thanks to the economic engine of our city and the strong need for dense housing, in community, that provides the resources and support we all need. You can read one story of an Eastsider who was displaced here.

Sadly, what’s good for investors is not good for the rest of us. St. Paul residents voted 53% to implement a 3% rental increase cap across the board to all rental properties in the city. We did this because we knew that stable, amortized increases make everyone safer. We also did this because we knew it would be a small barrier for gentrification and skyrocketing prices, allowing us to put in more supports into place and transform our system of housing before our communities are changed for good.

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More than 100 renters showed up at city council to demand it protect the law we passed. During the public council session on Aug. 24, we heard moving testimony from elderly renters whose social security payments have not increased at a rate anywhere near rent. We heard from residents who were counting on city council to protect them and keep their housing rates reasonable and from homeowners who knew stable rent benefits us all. You can listen to the powerful testimony here. City council chose to ignore us and listen to the five or six developers who threatened to hold us hostage by withdrawing their capital if we didn’t provide them unlimited rent increases, and therefore unlimited potential income on property resale.

These developers are already receiving millions in public subsidy. Ryan Companies, receiving millions in TIF dollars from St. Paul taxpayers, threatened to bail on their development project in one of the richest parts of the city if they don’t get exemptions to rent stabilization. I, and the 53% of St. Paul voters who passed rent stabilization, did not say “as long as it works for the developers.” We said 3%, for everyone, into perpetuity. New housing can have initial prices set at any point the owner wants.

Sadly, city council decided to agree with the few over the many and give developers and “affordable housing providers” the handouts they were asking for.

Worse, the newly exempted “affordable” housing uses regional Area Median Income (AMI) standards set by HUD. This means residents in low-income neighborhoods have their max rent set based on the median income of our entire metro area. Our metro area’s median income often makes residents eyes bug out when we learn how out-of-reach that “median income” really is. AMI is skewed by wealthy suburbs like Sunfish Lake, which, like our entire metro, rely on workforces of low income city-dwellers and immigrants to keep our powerful economic engine turning.

The idea that housing can only come from private investment is a lie that benefits the rich. Many other countries take a robust hand in building and providing exceptional housing. However, we have stuck with our tragically failing dedication to commodity, subsidizing only the private owners, never the residents themselves.

St. Paul City Council disagrees with the voters. With Ordinance 22-37, they told us the “right” of investors and developers to profit is more important than the right of everyone to stable rent and a dignified home.

America is allergic to treating economic needs as human rights, but St. Paul is ready to move past this. The American Bar Association and Urban Institute Initiatives agree, we’re past due time to declare housing as a true right for all.

St. Paul is ready to house everyone. We know it will unleash the potential of all of us and allow us to thrive. Developers who need unlimited profits don’t need to be part of the picture. The millions that go to housing subsidy should always stay in public hands in perpetuity, and must guarantee every Minnesotan a safe and beautiful home in a place where they want to live and access the resources and community we all need.

We don’t need to accept housing as a commodity anymore. With a state surplus, we can and must invest in every Minnesotan, not in the rich owners of our communities. We’re ready for something better. St. Paul City Council needs to catch up.

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David Ackos is a St. Paul resident, community organizer, and participant in the East Side Freedom Library Housing Justice program.


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