JCA in the news: "St. Louis Park works on tenant protection ordinance" - Sun Sailor

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The following appeared in The Sun Sailor on April 18, 2018. The original can be found here.


By: Seth Rowe

A planned St. Louis Park ordinance would discourage the new owners of rental properties from raising rents, rescreening tenants or not renewing leases without cause for about three months.

The idea for the ordinance came from a workgroup of representatives of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, agencies that advocate for the preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing and members of the St. Louis Park rental community. While the group could not agree on several other proposals relating to the protection of low-income tenants, they did agree to support an ordinance providing more restrictions for new owners.

Under the ordinance, new owners who take actions like raising rents within 90 days must pay tenants who choose to move as a result of the actions. The relocation assistance payments in a draft of the ordinance range from $2,600 for a studio apartment to $4,100 for a three-bedroom unit. The owner would owe a penalty equal to the total of the relocation assistance plus $500.

“This ordinance would not prohibit the new owner from taking the actions,” said Housing Supervisor Michele Schnitker during a March meeting about the proposed ordinance. “However, the owner would be required to provide resident relocation benefits if they do any of the actions during the tenant protection period and the tenant decides to move.”

The ordinance applies for buildings in which at least 18 percent of the units rent at a rate considered affordable to households with incomes of up to 60 percent of the area median income.

The St. Louis Park City Council voted in favor of the ordinance March 5 and finalized it April 16. The ordinance will go into effect in July.

The protection period would give residents time to seek housing support or seek alternative housing if they are facing unaffordable future rent increases, new screening criteria requirements that would be problematic for them or a lease nonrenewal with notice to vacate, Schnitker said.

The ordinance would end in five years unless the city renews it.

“This was requested by the rental owners and meant to provide an opportunity to analyze the effectiveness of the strategy after five years and determine whether to continue the ordinance,” Schnitker said.

No one spoke in opposition to the ordinance at the March meeting, but three St. Louis Park residents and a Minneapolis resident voiced support.

Kirsten Brekke Albright, a member of the St. Louis Park Community Housing Team, said the group formed about a year ago in response to an ownership change at the former Meadowbrook Manor that led to the displacement of many community members.

“Many of the families living at Meadowbrook were on a month-to-month lease, giving them no protection against these quick changes, sudden changes, to their housing situation,”  Brekke Albright said. “As a result, many families residing at Meadowbrook were forced to move.”

She suggested the ordinance would have given them more time to move or compensation for relocating, although Schnitker said the ordinance likely would not have applied at Meadowbrook. The family of current owner Ted Bigos has owned the property since its creation in the 1950s.

“This ordinance would not apply in that situation,” Schnitker said. “If there’s a change in the partnership and percentages of ownership, this would not apply. We’re really looking at where there’s a closing and a transfer of ownership to a new owner.”

Nevertheless, council members described the shift at Meadowbrook as an impetus for the ordinance.

“It really wasn’t until I was a council member and Meadowbrook happened that I had this, in my face, very real impact about what some of these issues are and how they impact individuals,” said Councilmember Anne Mavity, who became executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership last fall. “Frankly, the calls are still coming. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. For me, even though I do this professionally, it’s been quite a learning experience to really understand this side of the impacts.”

Council members must seek to find a balance between good landlords who are serving the community well and the protection of tenants who are vulnerable to a situation similar to the Meadowbrook changes, Mavity indicated.

“Understand, this is not a finger in the dike, but it’s a small step,” Mavity said. “It delays a problem for tenants in terms of their ability to find housing. I’m grateful for my colleagues who continue to take this on to try to look beyond that as well to try to find solutions for these tenants.”

Councilmember Steve Hallfin said he had an honest discussion with residents who face hurdles relating to affordable housing and who reached out to him about the proposed ordinance.

“This ordinance doesn’t do anything for what happened at Meadowbrook, which is a shame, but it actually opened our eyes a little bit,” Hallfin said. “I’m trying to pull a positive out of the negative situation that happened there, but I think this discussion here is very positive.”

The proposed ordinance would not safeguard families from being displaced, but it would help them as they relocate, Brekke Albright said during the public hearing.

“Finding other affordable housing options in St. Louis Park is a  formidable task given the high occupancy rates as well as increasing rents,” she said. “When families lose their housing, kids may lose the school they attend and the friends they’ve made. Parents may also lose their jobs and the overall network of support that they have built that has been vital to their family’s survival. The collateral damage of displacement has been proven to have a lifelong impact.”

Fatuma Irshat, the winner of St. Louis Park’s 2017 Human Rights Award, said tenants have stressed that the preservation of their housing is vital to their families.

She said the community housing team would continue to advocate for policies that would prevent discrimination based on the use of public rental assistance, would limit evictions, and would create an affordable housing trust fund for the city.

Irshat said, “We look forward to working with the city to implement these policies to preserve the naturally occurring affordable housing in our community and protect our tenants because affordable, safe and dignified housing is a human right.”

Resident Nancy Brown, a board member of Jewish Community Action, said she is passionate about rights for renters because of her work with tenants on the north side of Minneapolis. Some renters she worked with had less than a month to move.

“I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any of the renters we have in St. Louis Park,” Brown said. “If you break that commitment that they have already to St. Louis Park, it’s not only unhealthy for them but it’s unhealthy for St. Louis Park as well.”

Minneapolis resident Aaron Berc, a community organizer with Jewish Community Action who served on the workgroup that studied the proposed ordinance, warned that the ordinance “doesn’t do a lot” to preserve affordable housing or end the displacement of residents. However, he said housing advocates still are “very supportive of this ordinance.”

Council members debated some of the ordinance’s details, such as how to ensure building owners were truthful about reporting whether their units could be considered affordable and how to prevent landlords from increasing rents to unaffordable levels before a sale.

However, members of the council broadly supported the ordinance.

Mavity said, “Kudos to the groups of folks who have been at the table and really rolled their sleeves up to find a very small middle ground to stand on.”

Councilmember Rachel Harris said, “What happened with Meadowbrook is a starting point. It opened our eyes in a new way to the real challenges people face on an ongoing basis. We’ve come a long way since then, and it’s a starting point. We have some more work to do as a community with our policies.”

Mayor Jake Spano said, “This doesn’t solve all the problems. This is one very sort of small piece of buckshot that addresses one area. If we can get enough of these pieces of buckshot, right, we can make a big difference.”

He called the ordinance a method of treating the symptom of housing issues.

Spano said, “We need to treat the illness, and that is having more options available to people for affordable housing in our community.”

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