What is the mayor’s rent-control group doing? How will we know?

The longer St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s ad hoc Rent Stabilization Stakeholders Group meets the more confusing its deliberations become.

Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) is concerned that recommendations to clarify the city’s new rent control ordinance will neither be effective in (1) involving the public in this important discussion, nor (2) provide a road map for the City Council and the mayor on moving forward.

The 41-member panel meets on a digital platform and live-streams its meetings, but members routinely adjourn to smaller groups out of the public eye for more detailed discussions, and return making pronouncements without explanation.

Some council members and their staff have been denied access to the digital platform to observe and learn from stakeholders’ small-group discussions, while one council aide and several city staff have been granted that access.

If the ordinance, which is set to launch on May 1, is not refined, opponents predict a loss in affordable housing units — particularly new developments — in St. Paul because of its restricting rent increases to 3 percent a year.

The mayor made it clear he wants an amendment to exempt new construction from the ordinance ahead of input from the panel. Yet, at the group’s first meeting, City Council Member Chris Tolbert, a stakeholder group member, said: “The council wants to hear from this group before taking action.”

At the group’s second meeting, another panelist, former Councilmember Jay Benanav, made a strong push to have the group address the proposed new-construction exemption. However, panel co-chairs Tony Sanneh and Phil Cryan strongly opposed the notion, saying “We’re going to stay the course – stick to the mayor’s charge. If you have concerns, we encourage you to visit the mayor.” So again, things are being proposed without public input.

Furthermore, how the group of 41 intends to make decisions is unclear. Can there be motions and a vote? Is a quorum required? So far, voting is being done by “polling” (again not visible to the public) with no announcement or record of how members voted.

SPS is concerned that the panel’s minimal nod to public input is a ruse, hidden behind the classic Abbott and Costello comedic routine, “Who’s on First.” The mayor originally announced there would be three groups designing how the ordinance would work: 1) the aforementioned stakeholder group; 2) the mayor’s executive project lead for redevelopment Melanie McMahon is working on preparing the new construction exemption amendment, and 3) a third group of city staffers is working on implementation processes and procedures for the ordinance, which takes effect on May 1.

But again, this 41-member advisory group has not been charged with developing these complex new rules and procedures.  An important one relates to when a landlord may be able to justify raising rent over 3% in a given year. The ordinance states that will depend on the landlord’s ability to prove that additional rent is needed to earn “a reasonable return on investment.” At this point, no one knows what that means, for either applicants or appellants. And with a universe of over 70,000 rental units, the number of applications and appeals could be overwhelming.

Why convene a group of experts — developers, landlords, renters, and advocates — and not seek their counsel and advice?

The resulting rent ordinance is not just important for renters — homeowners and property-tax payers have a stake too. The public needs to weigh-in on what happens next. Without more transparency, better direction from the mayor, and more public input, these experts will not be able to contribute anything of value.

Andy Dawkins is a member of Saint Paul STRONG, a non-partisan organization.  Further information about the group is available at saintpaulstrong.com