ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Housing advocates joined together at the State Capitol Thursday to call for more affordable rentals, and changes in laws to give renters more tools for fighting eviction and quality of life issues.
"Tenants can no longer be invisible when they’re talking about housing, and we’re not only talking about housing today, we’re talking about livability," Metric Giles, of the Community Stabilization Project, remarked, to start Renters' Action Day on the Hill.
"We have this Rotunda today for one hour, but this is actually our house. And we need to be up here in one way or the other 365 days of the year!"
Many of the renters who came to the microphone said they felt powerless to even find a responsible party, when they encounter issues.
"We have carpeting that is coming up and ripping that any senior person could fall and break a hip," renter Amy Cooper said. "Sometimes we don’t have water. Power is intermittent."
Efforts are underway on several levels to create new affordable housing developments, and to preserve existing stock. But the demand continues to outstrip supply, putting tenants at a natural disadvantage when it comes to pressing landlords for repairs.
Amy Cooper said she has subsidized rent, but that her building is privately owned and managed.
"We are owned by a group of investors out East. We have no idea who these people are who own us. We’re trying to find out."
Rick Cardenas, a longtime advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities, said some people wait for years to qualify for Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers, only to find that form of payment is rejected.
"Many places that are affordable and accessible are not renting to people with Section 8, so we have to stop that practice," Cardenas said.
The event also drew elected leaders, including DFL State Representatives Rena Moran, Frank Hornstein, Laurie Halvorsen and Raymond Dehn.
Rep. Moran, who was homeless herself at one point in her life, pledged to help fellow lawmakers understand the plight of people living in substandard housing with little recourse.
"My job is to come in here and fight for us, to fight for you, to fight for my family that live in that community."
Rep. Dehn said he plans to introduce legislation in the 2018 Session that would place a three-year time limit on Unlawful Detainer Actions, the legal documents landlords file to evict tenants. Those unlawful detainers stay on tenants' records, making it difficult to find other housing. It can also mar their credit history, which also creates another barrier to renting.
He said he's also like to see landlords carry the burden of proof when they take tenants to court.
St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter also addressed the group.
"A family that is not housed cannot support children to go to school, to learn or to grow up safe," Commissioner Carter, who is Mayor Melvin Carter's mother, said.
She said Ramsey County and St. Paul have expanded efforts to keep residents in stable housing, and provide transitional living space for homeless and highly mobile persons.
"In Ramsey County we understand that this is not a place to be homeless! It’s cold outside!"
Some advocates say it's time to institute rent control, although even supporters of the concept say the term "rent stabilization" would attract more support from a wider group of lawmakers.
But Nelima Sitati Munene, of the African Career, Education & Resource, Inc., or ACER, said people shouldn't be afraid of tackling the issue head on.
"We want rent control. We’re not going to sugarcoat it, we’re not going to spin it. We’re not going to say anything else. We want rent control!"
Munene said renters' rights issues should be viewed through a racial equity lens, because housing problems fall disproportionately on persons of color.
In addition to the Community Stabilization Project, other groups working on renters' issues in Minnesota include MICAH, The Arc, The Alliance, Minnesota Renters' Coalition, St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Dispute Resolution Center, Jewish Community Action and Inquilinxs Unidx por Justicia,