The People Took Some Power

Share:

In 2020, Housing Equity Now St. Paul (HENS) launched what would become the Keep St. Paul Home (KSPH) campaign for residential rent control, placing a 3% annual rent increase limit on all residential rents in the city of St. Paul regardless of change of occupancy. The average rent increase in Minnesota is 3% per year, but renters of color in the Twin Cities regularly experience much higher rent increases. This policy aims to prevent displacement of communities of color and keep growing neighborhoods affordable. 

However, significant challenges remain, in the form of Mayor Carter’s push for a “new construction” exemption that would undermine the hard-won victory of St. Paul renters. DSA activists played a significant role in the KSPH campaign, and we know that to continue this fight, we will need evaluations of our work. We offer this summary as a starting point. 

After Election Day 2020, Twin Cities DSA began building neighborhood-based organizing pods. The St Paul pods turned toward local organizing around housing. In December 2020, information about a campaign-organizing call for rent control was shared in the Lower St Paul group chat. DSA members joined the KSPH Ground Game (GG) committee focusing on signature collection and GOTV work for the campaign and approached more experienced members in DSA for advice about getting the chapter involved in the campaign. Mara K. suggested that we form a small working group with the intention of drafting a proposal for supporting the campaign and a meeting of all St Paul members to approve. After endorsement by an “All St. Paul” meeting, the TCDSA Steering Committee voted to formally endorse the campaign. 

St. Paul DSA members identified five goals for the campaign:  

  • Resist the exploitation of renters, who are compelled to create wealth for landlords in exchange for meeting their basic need for housing. 
  • Use canvassing conversations to listen to non-DSA members in St. Paul and identify needs in our communities that DSA is not currently addressing. 
  • Learn about aligned organizations and gain an understanding of the political terrain in our city. 
  • Develop organizing skills and grow our capacity so that we may continue building our organization from campaign to campaign. 
  • Build the local reputation of DSA as an organization that fights for economic and racial justice and wins real material gains for the working class.

Campaign Preparation 

St. Paul DSA organizers prepared for the campaign on the HENS side:e joined HENS committees and created a dynamite HENS t-shirt. We committed to events and tactical goals we could deliver on: to host three signature collection activities to collect 250 signatures before the deadline of July 3rd.  

More importantly, we created a solid base for organizing in our own TCDSA neighborhood pods. After election day 2020, the St. Paul pods met regularly and developed a collaborative culture. Meeting leaders rotated regularly as did leaders for political education. The pods took time to build trust and friendship through group activities such as a history hike to Wakan Tipi, a sacred Dakota cave on the Mississippi River. These efforts developed a core of organizers who were committed to rent stabilization and to each other.  

Getting on the Ballot and GOTV 

The first strategic aim was the ballot initiative. This required a petition signed by 8% of people who voted in the previous election – 5,000 people by July 3rd. HENS’ goal was 10,000 signatures to account for any mistakes or improperly notarized petitions. St. Paul DSA members participated in HENS door-knocks and phone banks, organized signature collection events and became block captains in our own neighborhoods. 

At our three TCDSA-led canvasses, we collected 320 signatures, exceeding our goal. We turned out 40 volunteers at our signature collection events, including many brand-new DSA members and folks who had never canvassed before. DSA members volunteered for signature pop-up events all over the city and took ownership of collecting signatures in our neighborhoods. We knocked on doors, hung fliers, talked to our neighbors, notarized signatures, texted and called. Between our three TCDSA-led events, dozens of pop-ups and members independently collecting in their neighborhoods, we gathered well over 1,000 signatures. Staff from the Alliance, Housing Justice Center, West Side Community Organization and other groups were also instrumental in getting thousands of signatures necessary to get rent stabilization on the ballot. On June 15, HENS presented 9,100 signatures to the city. 

Landlord organizations spent $4 million on ads against the campaign through the Sensible Housing Ballot Committee.  The HENS coalition and DSA volunteers kept knocking on doors and talking with St. Paul residents. The coalition was able to raise $200,000 for literature, social media ads, and paid canvassers, many of whom were DSA members. 

On November 2, 2021, rent stabilization won in St. Paul. Over 31,000 St Paulites came together across race, class and ward lines to vote for it. With just over 53% support from the electorate, the message is clear: It’s time to stop the predatory practices of landlords.  

What We Learned 

  • When the people are united, Big Capital can be defeated.

Socialists in coalition with progressive, working-class activists can succeed in creating policies that address real pain and suffering. With the right issues and allies, combined with strong organizing, the people can exercise some power. While the actual impact of rent stabilization is yet to be seen, the lessons learned from this effort are laying the foundations for tenant organizing and progressive political action in St. Paul. 

  • The HENS campaign strengthened the St Paul regional groups  

Many people who had joined DSA just before the campaign became heavy hitters. “That’s a pretty respectable turnaround time from new member to big shot,” one of them said with a proud smile. The campaign enabled St. Paul DSA to form relationships with housing justice organizations in the city. It provided interested members with opportunities to talk with voters about leftist ideas. Members cultivated new skills and formed new friendships.  

The newly re-activated branch was built on a network of new relationships. Another member stated, “What we are doing is creating human connections.…We need to be social socialists.” 

  • We set achievable goals and met them.  

We didn’t try to host too many events and members showed up consistently. We collected signatures around the city at both HENS- and DSA-organized events and neighborhood door-knocking. Food truck festivals and farmers’ markets were the most productive ones.  We had successful, well-supplied, un-eventful events. No one had issues from the cold or heat or got into serious arguments while talking to voters.

  • A multi-racial alliance can be built through respect and hard work. 

HENS is a BIPOC-led coalition. Acknowledging that TCDSA remains a predominantly white space, we saw our participation in the campaign as a way to act upon our stated commitment to anti-racism and build connections with organizers working for racial justice. We decided not to recruit through the campaign.  Twin Cities DSA needs to address our white supremacist culture before new members of color would feel truly welcome. We also told the coalition we would be open about our socialist perspective. This approach was welcomed. 

The HENS coalition included some organizations that had been engaged in housing equity issues for several decades. Most of the leaders were Black, Latinx and Asian Americans. By explicitly naming our proposed contributions and achieving them, we built a principled alliance with this multi-racial coalition. In addition, we took leadership from HENS when issues arose – such as when Bill Lindeke, a generally progressive figurehead for liberals in St Paul, wrote an article attacking the rent stabilization initiative.

  • Burn-out happens when too much work falls on too few people. 

Twin Cities DSA has over 400 members in St Paul, but fewer than 20 people volunteered consistently for the campaign. And only a handful performed the bulk of the work. Towards the end of the GOTV drive, the activist core needed a break and took one, to reflect on their experience.  

Their comments explain what they learned. “When it comes to organizing, you can’t work off administrative skills alone,” one person said. “For example, I learned a lot about EveryAction and door-knocking. But I was in charge of getting St. Paul DSA people involved. I needed skills on how to mobilize more St. Paul people. It was easier for me to just go out myself than reach out to DSA folks.

“And maybe it is about the social aspect of it. Once you start going to the HENS meetings you get to know people. It is fun to be outside. You start enjoying it. There has to be messaging to communicate it is fun. ‘We are having a good time.’” 

Another person said, “One huge barrier is people not realizing how good they could be. Until I tried it for a paid job a few years ago, I thought there was no way I could canvass. Canvassing and organizing is not something you are born with. It is like a muscle that you need to exercise.”  

A third person said, “As socialist organizers, we need to specialize. Even though I felt stretched and close to burn-out, I didn’t feel bad about all the other issues I wasn’t working on. It felt good to know I was making a contribution and that the HENS campaign was my political work for the duration.” 

Some steps to take before the next campaign could include: 

  • Political education about the campaign issue to motivate members. 
  • Evaluate campaigns based on our capacity and how it can build democratic socialism. Identify strategic objectives for the campaign. 
  • Create a campaign organizing committee of three to five people who will be committed to that campaign for the duration. Empower the committee to make tactical decisions (when and where to organize an event). Be clear what is tactical vs. strategic. The committee would report back to the working group or branch. Create a way for them to hand off work if a personal crisis arises.  
  • Conduct training on specific organizing skills. 
  • Build a structure to organize, and not only mobilize, membership. For example, divide the St. Paul member list among a handful of committed organizers who will get to know their people. Who is good at what skills, who is available, what is their level of commitment and what issues really motivate them? Then they can ask these members to get more actively involved in whatever campaign we are committed to.

Working with non-profits as an independent ally can create political capital for a socialist organization.

 There are advantages and limitations to working with non-profit community organizations (NPCO). Established NPCOs have political power and leverage. It is important to understand who they are and where they stand. Non-profits may not align with socialism, but we can align on specific issues. Non-profits are reliant on grants and foundations. These pressures can shut down a campaign that gets too radical. The HENS coalition is rooted in communities of color and has credibility on the street. DSA gained that street-cred and new activists.

Many community organizers who took part in the campaign are certainly anti-capitalist even if they don’t identify as socialists. There are economic, political and cultural reasons they don’t. One reason is how white socialists and progressives conduct themselves, sometimes cluelessly asserting white or male privilege.   

St. Paul DSA found that we can take independent positions and still be aligned on the major goal. Workers at non-profits have a lot of expertise. We don’t want to alienate them. Also, NPCO staffers campaigned when DSA volunteers were at work. 

Next Steps 

Now that rent stabilization has won in the ballot box, we must continue the work to ensure its implementation. The ordinance will go into effect on May 1, 2022. Unfortunately, Mayor Carter’s office is asking the city council to approve an  exemption for new construction that would go into effect after one year. The city has also convened a task force to recommend other amendments. 

Renters in St Paul have allies in both the council and task force. The past year has proven that, when we organize, we can defeat the landlord lobby. HENS’ Renter Power Organizing Committee is organizing to ensure equitable implementation. All members are invited to join the fight.  Get involved in HENS events here.

This win for rent stabilization was historic, but it’s only part of the end goal of housing justice. There are tenant unions to form, mutual aid groups to create, power to be won. Through this victory we’ve prepared ourselves to undertake those tasks in the future. 

By Brigitte T. and  Robbie O.