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We need strong rent control: Lessons from the Fight for $15

To win a strong policy that actually benefits renters, it’s going to take building a relentless movement of union, faith groups, community organizations, working class homeowners and most importantly, renters.

An image from a minimum wage rally at Minneapolis City Hall on June 29, 2016.
An image from a minimum wage rally at Minneapolis City Hall on June 29, 2016.
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan

When Minneapolis passed the Midwest’s first $15 minimum wage and St. Paul followed suit a year later, it was a historic victory for workers, especially women and people of color – disproportionately pushed into low-wage jobs. Our movement won against entrenched opposition from the majority of elected officials in both City Halls who spoke generally in favor of $15 per hour minimum wage while doing everything in their power to undermine, delay and confuse its passage.

Now the real gains of $15 are under threat from rising prices of basic goods, medical care, lack of union recognition and rising rents, which have skyrocketed an average of 10% nationally in the last year alone. This is why renters in both cities voted in favor of rent control. To win a strong policy that actually benefits renters, it’s going to take building a relentless movement of union, faith groups, community organizations, working class homeowners and most importantly, renters.

Conceding to the growing movement for rent control, the Minneapolis City Council has launched its own process, which doesn’t even explicitly set the target of strong rent control. It’s currently being guided by councilmembers who openly spoke against strong rent control last summer when they killed the renter-led pathway. The language of “involving all stakeholders” describes a long history of tables packed with corporate and real estate interests, with the goal of a compromise position. At such tables, working-class people are always at the disadvantage.

To win $15, our movement collected 20,000 signatures to put the decision to voters, but the Minneapolis City Council legally doubled down twice to keep $15 an hour off the ballot. The council created the Workplace Advisory Committee (WAC), and we sat on any table, spoke with anyone who was genuinely open to enacting the strongest possible $15 per hour. While the WAC has gone on to lead on a wage theft ordinance and other important proposals, we need to be clear: fifteen was won through a showdown between workers and corporate interests, not a Minneapolis City Hall composed committee.

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Corporate interests sat on committees at City Hall to discuss worker’s rights, then turned around, lined up with state-level Republicans and sued the city to stop the implementation of sick time and $15. The same real-estate lobby that opposes almost any pro-renter policy, even the federal eviction ban itself, obviously has no place on a committee to pass rent control.

Minneapolis City Hall will drag its feet and claim it needs more data. This cry has come from councilmembers who ignore the city’s own, University of Minnesota delivered studies on both $15 and rent control. In both cases, the studies showed what working people have said all along: the rent won’t wait.

Some Minneapolis workers are only this year reaching $15 per hour because corporate interests were successful in pressuring City Hall to water it down. Our movement mobilized to the very last vote to defeat further pro-corporate amendments to carve-out industries, leaving workers behind. Without the clarity that our power in the streets needed to counter the big business lobbyists in the backrooms of City Hall, it’s unlikely that we would have won.

Also, St. Paul’s rent control victory offers a powerful lesson for our movement. Mayor Melvin Carter is fighting to gut the policy, approved by a majority of voters, with developer-friendly exemptions. This is contrary to the national momentum behind the renters’ rights movement that has fought back to defeat carve-outs previously won by the landlord lobby, like “vacancy decontrol.” New construction carve-outs are a death blow to strong rent control, incentivizing big developers to bulldoze existing affordable units to skirt rent control mandates.

In Minneapolis, Lake Street and West Broadway Avenue corridors are primed for development over the next several years; without strong rent control, these working-class, historically Black and immigrant neighborhoods are under threat of being quickly priced out. This is why any Minneapolis rent control must be universal, without these corporate carve-outs, and retroactively applied to cut across price fixing.

The most important lesson from the $15 minimum wage campaign in Minneapolis is this: working people cannot limit themselves to what is deemed acceptable by the political establishment and its ties to big business. We need to organize independently around our collective needs to get things done.

Ginger Jentzen is a member of Socialist Alternative and a volunteer organizer with Minneapolis United for Rent Control. Guillermo Lindsay worked in fast-food and played a leading role in the Fight for $15 alongside Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL). Rod Adams is executive director of the New Justice Project and was a lead organizer in the Minneapolis fight for a $15 minimum wage.