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Walz administration asks activists to back off on calls for a rent strike in Minnesota

Top DFL officials worry the call for a rent strike will endanger the ability to win a significant rental assistance package from the Legislature. 

The Minnesota campaign is part of a national effort aimed at pressuring governments to freeze rents and pass assistance programs for people who can’t afford them in the wake of the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

On Friday afternoon, supporters of a call to cancel rent payments in Minnesota will gather at US Bank Stadium for what organizers term a “socially-distant car rally, caravan and protest.” 

Their destination? The St. Paul mansion where Minnesota DFL Gov. Tim Walz lives.

“We need a people’s bailout,” the announcement reads. “US Bank, Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Legislature must take action immediately to ensure that nobody falls into stifling debt.”

May 1 is not only International Workers Day and a common date for demonstrations of left-leaning causes, it’s when most rents and mortgages are due.

The Minnesota campaign is also part of a national call for a May Day rent strike — the withholding of rent not only by those who can’t pay their rent but also by allies who can — as a way to pressure governments to enact rent cancellation and rental assistance programs in the wake of the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Among the political and labor organizations supporting rent cancellation, if not a rent strike, are TakeAction Minnesota and the Service Employees International Union. The majorities of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Richfield city councils have also signed a letter to Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan asking for an executive order to stop rent and mortgage payments, and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has co-sponsored a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationally for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.  

But the push from the left flank of the DFL coalition is being met with resistance from others within the party. That includes members of Walz administration, who fear that the talk of a rent strike will endanger the ability to win a significant rental assistance package from the Legislature.

“I get the urgency and I get the hashtag and I get the fear that people are feeling,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said in an interview Tuesday. “But we can do this in a way that’s smart and doesn’t pull the rug out from under an already difficult situation with a lack of affordable housing in the state.”

What the Legislature is doing

DFLers in the Legislature support a $100 million fund that would cover rent, mortgage and utility payments for residents at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The money would go to public, private and non-profit landlords as well as banks and utilities.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
Republicans lawmakers have their own version of the measure, which includes two key differences from the DFL bill. First, it calls for $30 million in assistance, with more later if needed. Second, they have a cap on how long Walz’s eviction moratorium can stay in place. 

Walz’s executive order stops evictions and late fees while his peacetime emergency declaration remains in place. The current declaration runs until May 13 but it is expected to be extended.

The Senate GOP bill would allow only one 30-day extension, meaning the eviction ban would end June 24. Once that happens, back rent would be due and landlords could begin evictions again.

Landlords, activists and lawmakers all want to avoid a flood of evictions, since it would destabilize the housing system and endanger families and property owners alike. But landlords and some Republicans fear that an unlimited eviction ban offers protections for those who have the ability to pay but are aren’t. 

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During a hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Committee last week, GOP members asked Jennifer Ho, the commissioner of Minnesota Housing, the state housing finance agency, whether public and private developers will be leery of investing in new housing given the uncertainty about being able to collect rent. 

“If things are going to be that uncertain, why would I take that chance?” asked Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, mentioning “flyers that get hung up about a rent strike for May 1,” and wondering: “Is there anything else we can do to help fight that mentality?”

Commissioner Jennifer Ho
Commissioner Jennifer Ho
Responded Ho: “The easiest answer would be to make a big investment in the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program, because it would create a way for people to pay,” she said. “The sooner that we can unite around a package here for family homeless prevention assistance, I just think that helps us have a clear message out as to how we’re going to solve this and that a rent strike — or a rent holiday — is a really, really bad idea, because it’s going to put people in really bad shape when we come out the other end of this.”

But it wasn’t just Republicans on the committee urging Ho and the Walz administration to be more vocal about their opposition to a rent strike. Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, told Ho: “I think you’d find the committee members more comfortable with the idea that you’re against the rent strike and make it easier for us to hammer this together.” 

“If there are more places I can speak in, if there are media outlets in your areas, if there’s someone I can call on the phone and say, ‘Don’t be stupid, pay your rent,’ I’ll be happy to be the conveyor of that message,” said Ho. “If you want a quote, ‘I think the rent strike is a really, really bad idea.’”

Walz administration concerns 

The Walz administration and House DFL leadership think $100 million is the minimal amount needed for the rental assistance program, with more likely necessary, and they are against a specific end to the moratorium. “I hear the landlords who talk to us about setting a specific date,” Ho said. “And we can set a specific date. But it’s the virus that’s driving the timeline.”

Flanagan said she has spoken to TakeAction leaders to talk about how they can be more “aligned,” and that “It should surprise no one that making sure children and families can remain housed and continue to pay their rent and mortgages is a top priority for our administration.” 

But rent cancellation would be unprecedented, she said, and the administration has solicited legal opinions predicting that it would invite court challenges that “could prevent us from taking other important steps to protect Minnesotans and fight COVID-19,” she said. 

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That’s why the administration is pushing the rental assistance plan. “We think it’s pretty critical that after the (eviction moratorium) is lifted that we don’t have a whole bunch of folks suddenly finding themselves where they are removed from their homes,” said Flanagan, who called rental assistance a win-win because both tenants and landlords are kept whole.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Office of the Governor
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
As for the call for a rent strike, Flanagan said she tells people she plans on paying her own rent Friday and that those who can afford to pay should pay, since an abrupt lack of revenue for public, non-profit and private housing providers could exacerbate an already existing housing crisis. (The biggest provider of affordable housing in the state is the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.)

“The loss of affordable housing, naturally occurring affordable housing, additional foreclosures and the removal of families — this is the stuff that  keeps me up at night and is why we’re pushing the Republicans Senate to act on rental assistance,” Flanagan said.

“The eviction moratorium is the first step and housing assistance is the next.”

Activists not backing down

Activists have so far not been persuaded that lowering their voices is a good strategy. 

“Of course it’s a bad idea to not pay your rent,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who organized the April 6 letter to Walz and Flanagan asking for an executive order to suspend rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. “That’s not really what we’re discussing. We’re discussing that people won’t be able to — no matter how much they want to.”

“To say this is a bad idea is beside the point,” said Ellison, who has also been a supporter of Omar’s federal legislation. “Maybe a pandemic is a bad idea, but it’s happening. We don’t really get a say in that. This is a matter of opinion, but I would refute the idea that any activism is interfering with stuff going on at the state Legislature. If Democrats want to assert that, or if people in the administration want to assert that, then I would ask them to prove that state Republicans are willing to play ball.

“And if state Republicans are saying they’re willing to play ball if activists shut up, I would want one of them to say that out loud. That concept strikes me as weird and inappropriate,” Ellison said. 

Elianne Farhat
Elianne Farhat
While he said he is not “quite to the point” of supporting a rent strike in Minnesota, he said he respects that decision by others.

Elianne Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, said activists are not interested in small or incremental responses to the social issues that existed before COVID-19 but have been highlighted by the pandemic.

“We need solutions at the scale of the crisis our people are facing,” she said. “What the pandemic has shown is how broken our system is, that it is designed to privilege and feed the richest people in our country at the expense of everybody else.” 

She complimented Walz and Flanagan for what she called their first steps in response to the crisis, but she also said they now need to respond to “the ripple effects” of the economic disruption, including a rental assistance program and solutions to the debt crisis that existed pre-COVID.

“From my perspective, there’s nothing that does that other than cancelling the rent,” she said. 

Farhat said that while Flanagan has taken steps to keep the doors to the administration open to more people, especially people who have been excluded from decision making, TakeAction is not willing to reduce pressure on the administration and Legislature. 

“A healthy, vibrant democracy requires people pushing it to act,” Farhat said. “What I have seen happen at the Minnesota Legislature time and time again is that folks go behind closed doors and cut a set of deals without us seeing what they’re doing. And everytime that happens poor folks, folks of color, indigenous folks, working class folks get left out.

“When we back down, it’s even more likely we’ll get cut out of a deal.”

Correction: This story was corrected to show that the end of the current peacetime emergency declaration is May 13, not May 24.