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A week later, basic questions about St. Paul rent control remain unanswered

Mayor Melvin Carter is asking the city council to amend the strict cap on rent increases, but legal questions put any changes in doubt.

ST PAUL, Minn. — It's been a week since voters in St. Paul passed the first rent control measure in the Midwest, but there are still more questions than answers about how, and when, it will be enforced.

If you're still confused about the status of rent stabilization in St Paul, you're not alone. Despite studying rent control proposals as a former city planner, and working as a law and political science professor at the University of Minnesota, David Schultz says there are still very few solid answers for both renters and landlords.

Erdahl: "You've worked in planning and zoning?"

Schultz: "Yeah."

Erdahl: "You're a professor of law, and a professor of political science."

Schutlz: "Yeah."

Erdahl: "You live in St. Paul."

Schultz: "Yeah."

Erdahl: "And can you make sense of this?"

Schultz: "I can't and that's the problem. I looked at this when it was first proposed and I had a ton of questions on it. This rent control ordinance really didn't consider the larger picture of what needs to be done."

Some large developers have said they're now pressing pause on apartment projects in St. Paul until questions are answered, and even though Mayor Melvin Carter is asking the city council to exempt new construction from the strict three percent cap on rent increases, Schultz says it may be too late.

"It might be a good idea but the law looks clear in terms of saying that if the people vote something into law, it looks like the city can't do anything in terms of changing it or repealing it or anything for at least a year."

And if you're wondering when the clock starts on that year, even that remains a question. 

According to city charter, an ordinance becomes effective immediately upon passage by referendum, but the Mayor's spokesperson, Peter Leggett, says the language approved by voters included a May 1, 2022 implementation date, which is what is effective immediately.

Schultz: "It just lead to more confusion. There are some people who think it's already in effect now, that we already have rent control in St Paul. There are some that are saying, well, it might not take effect for a few months."

Erdahl: "The fact that we're still this far along and we still don't know when it takes effect, what does that tell you?"

Schultz: "What it tells us is there were a lot of things that were unclear. Ultimately a lot of these are questions about law that may have to be resolved in the courts, and not necessarily by city council."

Erdahl: "Assuming they can get this stuff figured out, they still have a lot of other things to establish for renters and landlords, correct?" 

Schultz: "They do, yeah, I mean, passing the law is only the start of the process and here, what we're doing, is creating a whole new regulatory system. What are we going to do when someone violates the law? What about appeals? Are there any issues regarding how you're going to staff some agency that's supposed to be responsible for all this? None of this was really clear in the ordinance."

Schultz says part of the problem is the city council is forced to implement a ballot measure written by someone else, but says that doesn't excuse the confusion.

"This is not like a tornado suddenly, boom, hits the city and they have to figure out what's next," Schultz said. "They had ample opportunity to think about how to address the problems. They chose not to do so."

And like any other election, he says choices have consequences.

"This is what the people voted on and should the people be entitled to get what they voted on? I think so," he said. "Isn't that part of what democracy is all about? It doesn't seem fair, it doesn't seem right, for the city to say, well, voters you got it wrong, we don't agree with you, we're going to change what you wanted to do."

Despite declining multiple interview requests about the issue, Mayor Carter's spokesperson says they'll be working with the city council to bring an amendment - exempting new construction - through the legislative process soon. From there, they acknowledged the courts could play a role.