Originally published online with the Sahan Journal, December 7, 2023
By restoring rent stabilization and putting the right to housing above the right to profit, we can transform our cities.
If you live in Saint Paul like me, you may be familiar with the powerful rent stabilization law we passed in November 2021. Minneapolis and Saint Paul voters said “YES” to two referendums on rent stabilization, winning a victory for housing-over-profit, despite $4 million dollars spent by landlord and property developer groups to prevent us from having stable rent.
Saint Paulites overwhelmingly see the need to house everyone. We all see the encampments. We know the best healthcare is housing. Many of us worry that rent increase after rent increase will put us out on the street or force us into less safe circumstances.
That’s why we voted 53 percent to 44 percent, in an off-year election, for a 3 percent rent cap to apply to all rental housing in the city. Saint Paulites overwhelmingly agree housing should be a human right, above the vaunted right to profit. Tragically and unsurprisingly, the Saint Paul City Council gutted our law against the will of the voters. The council replaced a 3 percent rent cap with an effective rent cap of 8 percent up to potentially much more. They also removed protection from much of the city by exempting all subsidized “affordable” housing.
Now, a full 30 percent of Saint Paul renters are unprotected. The rest of us must contend with vacancy decontrol (large increases when a tenant moves out, major incentive to scare a tenant out of an apartment), an exemption for all new construction, and a de-facto annual rent increase of 8 percent, potentially up to 15 percent with almost no recourse. This is far from the universal 3 percent cap we voted on.
Newly re-elected Council Members Nelsie Yang and Mitra Jalali stood with renters and the 150 activists who filled a town hall when the rest of the City Council decided to undermine our democracy by countermanding the voters. Of those council members who voted to gut rent stabilization, most chose not to run again in 2023 — presumably aware that anyone who knew what happened would be furious.
Of the council members who sided with developers over voters and normal people, only Rebecca Noecker, Saint Paul’s Ward 2 council member, ran for reelection. She received the DFL endorsement after activists were not allowed to speak against her endorsement at the ward caucus unless they had a candidate to run against her.
The landlords and developers have convinced many people that there is only one way for us to have housing. They say, “You can only have housing if we will build it for you. We will only build it if we’re guaranteed unlimited profit potential.” They say we need to keep doing what we’re doing, keep the property and profit rights sacred, and heavily subsidize new housing construction that is affordable to some portion of the population for 15 to 30 years.
This means in an apartment earmarked for residents making 60 percent of the so-called “area median income,” like the ones owned by Dominium, a resident is getting exploited with high rent and is unprotected by rent control. On top of that, the hedge fund that owns your home gets to pocket your rent money and your taxes in the form of state, federal, and often local subsidies.
There has to be another way, right? Luckily, there is. We need to transform how we relate to land. For better or worse, thanks to the unfolding climate catastrophe, we need to do that anyway.
Decommodifying housing means to make housing a public good, not a commodity. Housing as a commodity has had tragic impacts, not just in Minnesota, but across the world. In the documentary “PUSH,” director Fredrik Gertenn and United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Leilani Farha explore why and how housing has become unaffordable in almost every major city on earth. The extractive commodification of housing caused the 2008 crisis, and has impacts across the Twin Cities metro and across the world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight it in our own backyard.
I recently attended a powerful tour at Mni Sota Bdote (the intersection of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers near Fort Snelling) hosted by the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust Studies. At the beautiful site in Fort Snelling State Park, Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, our tour guide, taught us about the mass ethnic cleansing that allowed the Twin Cities to be parceled up and commodified.
She explained that when the first treaties were made between the U.S. government and Indigenous communities, there was no concept of ownership in the Dakota language. Paraphrasing the lesson, she said, “To the Dakota, the earth is a relative. To own land, to own the earth you live on, is unthinkable.” Indeed, no one was unhoused before settlers started building fences and driving out the previous residents.
The tragic history of extraction and displacement of Minnesotans of color continued at scale through the 20th Century. It’s well-documented in the PBS exposé “Jim Crow of the North,” by the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, and in other places. We must learn the cruel and violent history of how the previous residents and caretakers of this land were displaced. It’s the only way to heal the wounds to our communities, the land, and ourselves. But it makes sense that we don’t get taught about it in schools. That might get us to start asking questions.
If we do ask those questions, we’ll discover the game hasn’t changed. We have a wealthy state, but some of the greatest racial inequality in the country. Minnesota’s not so great a state if you’re Black. Despite being well aware of the racial wealth, housing, and equity gap, why do our City Council members go against moves to protect and stabilize our housing, and instead advance developers’ demands for more subsidies to privately owned, temporarily (and debatably) “affordable” housing?
Maybe those council members can’t imagine a world where we build and co-own our own housing, public spaces, and businesses. Maybe they, or their landlord, developer, and investor constituents, are afraid that if we take a real look at the situation, we’ll realize community wealth and community care are a much better bet for our retirements than our 401ks or our property values.
Strong rent control would suppress long term land speculation by eliminating the possibility of massive profits on the resale of young buildings and the exploitation of tenants. Landlords would have to amortize their costs and provide stable rent just like banks are forced to do with mortgages (thanks to the federally subsidized 30 year fixed rate mortgage model and its various related tax breaks–a huge housing subsidy to those who can afford it).
As land prices stabilize, with speculation no longer a feasible wealth extraction tool, we could build our own housing and purchase or expropriate housing from the worst landlords like Inquilxs Unidxs (IX) did in Minneapolis. In the IX story, the Corcoran 5 apartment buildings, owned by notorious slumlord Steve Frenz, were won for cooperative ownership by residents after a lengthy organizing and legal battle.
We can build by and for community needs, redeveloping the once-robust Twin Cities co-operative economy, building permanently affordable, democratically controlled social housing. We can build high-quality, city- or state-owned public housing, reminiscent of municipal socialism in Vienna in the 1920s, also known as Red Vienna. In Vienna, roughly 25 percent of the city’s housing is public, and residents of any economic class can benefit from world class, beautifully designed, permanently affordable homes.
With a rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe, including rapid warming, greater and more frequent natural disasters, and the threat of mass crop failures, civilizational collapse is a meaningful possibility, even to those in the scientific community. While our country fails to set or meet aggressive decarbonization goals, our military, one of the biggest polluters in the world, is actively preparing for the shocks that climate crisis has and will bring to the world.
In the face of these threats, decommodifying housing is the only option. I have far less trust in a 401k or property values than I have in a community of educated, resourced people around me that are invested in working together to make local foodways and build a thriving city. We can survive the century with community care and wealth redistribution, or we can accept that our kids won’t be able to have kids or grandkids.
A decommodified Twin Cities metro is a place where we meet our needs collectively and guarantee everyone a safe space and a chance to make a difference. I know we can achieve it, and it’s so much better than the alternative.
If you would rather decommodify housing than bet your retirement on your home value, there are some steps you can take. If you are in Saint Paul or Minneapolis, reach out to your recently elected city council candidate. Ensure they’re committed to restoring rent control in your ward. Wherever you are, talk to your family and friends about what alternatives to landlords might look like. Organize your neighbors for housing justice or into a tenants’ association or union. Work towards starting a cities-wide tenants union. Push your local neighborhood organization towards systems change and renter organizing.
I wrote about the impact of one systems-change neighborhood organization in Saint Paul—West Side Community Organization (WSCO). What could our cities look like with a WSCO in every neighborhood? Then, invest in your local equivalent of the new Midway Investment Cooperative. Other collective investment and cooperative ownership projects are starting across town. Make sure the one you’re involved in moves towards decommodification like the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative.
We can all be housed. We can all have beautiful, plentiful space, security, and community. Let’s make it happen.
David Ackos is a Saint Paul resident, housing activist, writer and organizer. In their free time, they hike, write, and sing.
- Shelterforce. “Minneapolis, Saint Paul Voters say Yes to Rent Stabilization.” Edward G. Goetz (November 2021)
- Health Affairs. “Housing And Health: An Overview Of The Literature.” Lauren A. Taylor (June 2018)
- Ballotpedia.org. Saint Paul, Minnesota Question 1, Limits on Rent Increases (November 2021)
- Minnpost Community Voices. “St. Paulites Agree Housing is a Human Right.” David Ackos (October 2022)
- Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “One Third of Saint Paul now Exempt from Rent Control as Exceptions Pile Up.” Frederik Melo (May 2023)
- Minnesota Reformer. “St. Paul City Council passes sweeping overhaul of rent control ordinance.” Max Nesterak (September 2022)
- Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “Despite Saint Paul Rent Control, Dominium Hikes Rent Nearly 8%” Frederick Melo. (July 2022, Updated November 2022)
- “PUSH – The Film” Fredrik Gertten. (2022)
- Twin Cities PBS. “Jim Crow of the North.” (2019)
- University of Minnesota. “Mapping Prejudice: Visualizing the hidden histories of race and privilege in the built environment.”
- NPR.Planet Money. “Minnesota ranks near the bottom for racial equality.” Greg Rosalsky (June 2022)
- New York Times. Opinion. “Minnesota Is One of the Best Places to Live in America. Unless You’re Black.” Samuel L. Myers Jr. (April 2021)
- New York Times Magazine. “The Tenants Who Evicted Their Landlord.” Matthew Desmond (October 2021)
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- Jacobin. “We Can Have Beautiful Public Housing.” Meagan Day (November 2018)
- HUD. Office of Policy Development & Research (PD&R). Featured Article. “Vienna’s Unique Social Housing Program.”
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “Climate change and the threat to civilization.” Daniel Steel, C. Tyler DesRoches and Kian Mintz-Woo (October 2022)
- US Army News Service. “Army introduces strategy to combat climate change threats.” Joseph Lacdan (February 2022)
- Tenants Together. “Form a Tenants’ Union!”
- Twin Cities DSA Blog. “West Side Community Organization Shows Us What Organizing can Do.” David Ackos (November 2022)
- Midway Investment Cooperative.
- East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative. Mission & Vision.