A last-minute bid to put a strict rent control ordinance before Minneapolis voters on the November ballot met an abrupt end on Wednesday, despite supporters crying foul over holding the vote on Eid al-Adha with three Muslim City Council members absent.
Aisha Chughtai, Jamal Osman and Jeremiah Ellison were not present at Wednesday’s council meeting as they celebrated one of Islam’s two most important holidays. Chughtai and Osman authored the rent control proposal.
Their absence left only four out of 13 council members to vote in favor of advancing the measure to committee: Council President Andrea Jenkins as well as Robin Wonsley, Jason Chavez and Elliott Payne.
With the authors and Ellison gone, supporters were powerless to stop the council’s rent control critics from voting to “return the item to authors” — seemingly ensuring that the issue would not advance to a final vote in time for an Aug. 25 deadline for placing an issue before voters this fall.
Rent control supporters did face long odds. Mayor Jacob Frey had publicly committed to veto this rent control proposal, meaning supporters would’ve needed to muster a nine-vote supermajority. With the council starkly divided on the issue, Wednesday’s vote may have simply sped the inevitable.
But supporters said most of the actual dealmaking and compromising would’ve come next — when the measure hit the committee stage — and that shelving the proposal on a Muslim holiday on the magnitude of the Christian holidays of Christmas or Easter was “outrageous.”
“I’m shocked right now,” a livid Chavez said from the dais after the vote. “Our Muslim council members are celebrating Eid with their families. Because this meeting was moved, now our committee members don’t have the opportunity to even have a discussion about rent stabilization for the city of Minneapolis.”
City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano pointed out the council’s rent control supporters also knew months ago that Wednesday’s meeting would be pivotal to their cause.
Palmisano forwarded a timeline Chughtai emailed to council in May, in which Chughtai listed Wednesday’s meeting and noted that advancing the rent control measure would require an “affirmative vote of [a] majority of Council Members present and participating, assuming a quorum.”
City Clerk Casey Carl said he didn’t learn of the conflict with Eid until Monday afternoon. The council needs to give three days notice before moving a meeting date.
However, the date of Eid al-Adha changes year to year because the holiday follows a the lunar calendar of Islam. In addition, many Muslims tied their observance to the sighting of a new moon, which means the actual start of the holiday can shift by a matter of days. In a joint statement, Chughtai, Ellison and Osman said that the precise date of Eid al-Adha was confirmed “early last week.”
“Unfortunately,” the three Muslim council members wrote, “council leadership decided against using their authority to reschedule this meeting.”
Why meet on a major holiday?
Ironically, when council members set this year’s meeting calendar in September 2022, city officials had scheduled Wednesday’s meeting in hopes of avoiding a conflict with Eid al-Adha celebrations.
Instead, by moving the City Council meeting from its normal Thursday time, council members and the City Clerk created, rather than avoided, a conflict.
“We made every attempt to accommodate the Muslim members of our council, which is why we are meeting on this day,” Jenkins explained. “Subsequently — I am non-Muslim so I don’t know how that calendar works, however — it turned out that Eid was on this day. It’s deeply unfortunate, and we have to move forward with the work of the Council.”
Carl also offered apologies, saying that in setting the council’s meeting calendar, his office follows a list of official state holidays that also includes significant Islamic and Jewish holidays.
The clerk’s office seeks to ensure that city governing bodies don’t meet on these dates, but Carl also said that the clerk “relied upon those council members who represent those traditions to tell us when and if there are changes, since we don’t track that after the Council adopts the calendar.”
“This one unfortunately got missed,” Carl added, saying that he didn’t learn until Eid al-Adha this year conflicted with this week’s council meeting until early this week: “It was too late for us to change the calendar” because of the state law requiring three day’s notice of a public meeting.
In a statement sent after the meeting, Palmisano said that any error here was a collective failing: All council members are responsible for voting on and setting the calendar.
“Everyone adopted this; it is not a decision up to council leadership,” Palmisano said. “Council members are welcome to work to change the calendar when an issue is identified and this has happened in the past. It is not the clerk’s job, not council leadership’s job, to constantly check. Had it been brought to our attention more than three days prior, we could have accommodated because that is the law of notice.”
What about the rent control policy?
Scheduling issues aside, rent control supporters argued that the City Council had shirked its responsibility, arguing that voters had urged Minneapolis leaders to continue exploring the issue.
In November 2021, more than 53% of city voters approved a measure amending Minneapolis’ charter to allow the City Council to put some sort of rent control proposal on the ballot in the future.
“The City of Minneapolis voted for us to do our job, and that job was very simple: bring forward a policy,” said Payne. “We deferred that to a workgroup and when that workgroup brought forward a policy, today we deferred that policy to some date uncertain, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for that.”
In April, city staff presented a report urging the council against advancing even the most permissive rent control measures under consideration. Staff argued that any sort of rent control would cause new construction of housing units to dry up and perhaps even incentivize landlords to raise rents faster than they already are.
The proposal that Chughtai and Osman put forward was based on an ambitious proposal that included a strict 3% cap on annual rent increases.
But supporters had stressed they were willing to negotiate on the details. A coalition of advocacy groups, dubbing itself the Home to Stay Coalition, had hoped to urge the City Council to pass something — anything — on rent control. They had hoped to leave room for a compromise on the council by holding back on advocating for specific rent control policies they hoped to see in the final version.
Would it have been possible to craft a compromise that would’ve garnered nine votes, enough to overrule the veto Frey threatened?
“We don’t know that because they stopped the process,” said Ben Whalen, an organizer with ISAIAH, an interfaith advocacy group that’s part of the rent control coalition. “We have been clear since a year and a half ago, when this council took office after the initial amendment was passed, that we expected a strong policy and we were open to negotiation.”
Wednesday’s vote, wrote Chughtai, Osman and Ellison, “killed the possibility of holding a public hearing on this important issue, which has been under consideration at City Hall since late 2019, was approved by voters in 2021, and was recommended by a council-created work group of experts.”
But Palmisano said the rent control issue “has been an absolute distraction to our city doing meaningful work … that would actually help affordability and housing stability,” pointing to city staff’s recommendations to explore other solutions for low-income renters, such as guaranteed or universal basic income programs or targeted rent relief.
“It’s unfortunate that people have been misinformed about what rent control does,” added council member LaTrisha Vetaw. “It’s not going to work. The 3% cap is not going to help the people that we as a body want to help.”
Wonsley was undeterred, urging voters to turn rent control into a voting issue during the upcoming City Council elections this November, in which all 13 seats will be up for grabs.
“Take it to the ballot,” she said. “We often see in this body, in the mayor’s office, where things are stuck down — priorities that we know working class people need in our city — that do not align with corporate interests.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled ISAIAH organizer Ben Whalen’s name. The story has also been updated to clarify that Mayor Frey threatened to veto this specific rent control proposal. While he has generally expressed opposition to rent control, a spokesperson says he has not threatened to veto a second proposal being considered at City Hall.