The podcast this week is a conversation with Ginger Jentzen, who is running for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 3. Jentzen is a community organizer who formerly ran the successful 15 now living wage campaign that raised the minimum wage in Minneapolis this year. Now she’s running for Council as part of the Socialist Alternative party.
We sat down near her campaign headquarters on Central Avenue the other day and had a long discussion about her ideas on affordable housing, on advocacy versus representation, on inequality in Minneapolis, and what city politics should look like in the Trump era. It was a very interesting conversation, and I hope you enjoy it.
[rough partial transcript follows]
Q: Tell me about yourself. Why are you running for City Council in Minneapolis?
For a long time I was in the service industry, or worked with folks with developmental disabilities. A lot of that work was alongside coworkers who were struggling to get by because of various day-to-day things, forces that exert themselves on the people that really make our city run, people in restaurants, people doing PCA work. We struggled with not getting COLA raises, not being able to afford housing.
So folks that were working in low wage jobs but trying to raise families, buy houses, maintain an apartment in the city. Back in 2010, when I was working with folks at the group home we were encouraged to go to the state capital to lobby against cuts. At the time we were talking about an entire Democratic Party-run House, Senate and governorship. That was disillusioning.
Why are there proposed cuts to the most vulnerable people in our society? And why aren’t people working with them are getting raises? So I started organizing in independent politics and organizing with working people.
I joined the fight for the affordable housing that we need, to win a 15 dollar minimum wage in Minneapolis, as the executive director for 15 Now. Talking to regular people, nurses, teachers, folks that make the city run across Minneapolis. They were really supportive and it was a lot of the political establishment obstructing it in city hall that was the barrier. Without that movement, I don’t think this would have happened.
Q: How would you view politics around policing or rent control differently than current Minneapolis leaders?
You can see the comparison between the $15 min wage and policing issues in the city. Where we’ve built up a strong movement we’ve been able to push back and win something. And that’s the type of work that needs to be done with dealign with the racism that exists in the Minneapolis P.D. And that’s the type of work the model for how we won 15 by putting it forward as a ballot initiative and having the folks at the city push back against us. We were able to clarify issues.
Wider policies that we need like rent control. Part of the reason I’m running as a Socialist Alternative candidate is that we need that genuinely independent voice in City Hall, and we can organize with the left wing in City Council and those that are less tied to the political establishment. We need to be putting forward these policies. We need to be talking about taxing the rich for social services. We need to be talking about an expanded vision for what role city council members can play. To me, 15 Now really shows that.
We can organize around the city budget by having our own people’s budget events, throwing open the doors of City Hall. That’s about setting community priorities, it isn’t about putting one person into office, it’s about its about expanding the full scope of how we use political positions and having those political positions linked and rooted in our social movements. That’s the only way we’re going to act.
Q: Do you think Minneapolis has a housing crisis? If so, describe it. What is the root of the problem, and what might you do to solve it?
We’re talking about decades of big business and for-profit developers setting an agenda in the city of Minneapolis. There was a concerted effort back in the 80s for these big developers pushing for preemption against rent control. Part of that that is was fairly popular, and made it more difficult to kick out residents in cities like New York and San Francisco. Over the years part of these efforts have been pushed back because of the lobbies of powerful developers.
This broad crisis of affordability in Minneapolis is being articulated through… There’s a wide topic of discussions in part because we’re looking at rent increases having gone up 15% since 2009, and yet we have extremely low vacancy rates. We can see that the market-driven approach is not really working at making housing affordable. For example, we have 7,000 units that have been built since 2009 broadly not affordable. There was a recent Star Tribune article that shows, of the 5-6,000 units that were planned in the Metro area since 2016, only 1 in10 will be considered affordable housing.
There was a recent study at CURA that shows that a median income black family in Minneapolis can no longer afford to live in Minneapolis. That to me says that this is intimately linked to this crisis of racial inequity in the city.
We need to call not just for lifting the ban on rent control, but also how do we do the organizing to fight for rent control politics. The issue of raising linkage fees on developments that come into the City of Minneapolis. To me that’s a tax where, even at a small percentage, it could put millions into the affordable housing trust fund.
How we prioritize where we build affordable housing across the city needs to be discussed in terms of what residents want to see. Current residents are upset about the fact that developers rule at City Hall, and about what the most profitable development is to them but not what the community actually wants or needs.
Q: Do you think there’s a power imbalance in the city between homeowners and renters? How would you that relationship look if you could rethink it?
In the context of movement building for rent control, we need to constantly talk about what it would mean to tax the super-wealthy and big developers to fund the needs of the people of Minneapolis. If we’re constantly burdening middle class people with higher property taxes, we’re talking about a very regressive property tax situation in Minneapolis right now. If we’re constantly burdening working people that can cause the types of divisions that make it more difficult to organize for what would actually be broadly in the interests of both renters and working and middle class homeowners.
To me the example of Inqulinxs Unidxs which is a very vibrant renters rights organization that has successfully brought lawsuits against Steven Frenz, this notorious slumlord… He took over from a previous notorious slumlord, he’s not only been unresponsive to tenants but there are issues of pests and mold. In whittier he attempted to increase rents with very short notice, and when we’re talking about renters rights, the idea that a landlords has within their power go give a rent increase with only 30 days notice. That is not going to work for someone with a family. The city just kind of carte blanche gave him the highest rating of a landlord in the City of Minneapolis.
The fact that Inqulinxs Unidxs has been doing organizing around him, but also getting reparation back from tenants who have gone though this criss. They’re also calling for the need for tenants unions, broadly getting a role for renters rights.
We need depressionary measure on rent that put more power in the hands of tenants organizing. The “let the market rule” approach, the tenant and student voice has been missing. Students as well. There are a lot of students who are trying to afford being close to the U of MN campus so they can live work and go to school in the same area.
Q: How would you have approached the development in Ward 3 differently, ahd you been the area’s Council Member during the previous four-year term?
Most of the development you are indicating on this side of the river, like the Nordhaus, there is no commitment to having below market-rate units in these buildings. We’re not talking about addressing the question of affordability within the city or the ward.
Talking to folks all throughout Ward 3, the main question to most people i what is the overall cost burden and price point with just building market rate housing. You’re going to push the people who live here for even a short period of time, with very few rights, they’re biggest concerns for most people whether they are working- or middle-class homeowners or renters in the area, is that these bigger buildings that are entirely market-rate are just going to further the crisis of affordability in this part of the city.
If I had been the council member when these proposals came through, there would have been a much more robust discussion about leveraging our power as the City to get higher taxes on them to go into the affordable housing trust fund. At the very least we should have made stronger commitments to having affordable housing and below-market units in these buildings.
Many of these developers say they would like to do middle-density, but that its not profitable. To me that’s a non-starter. If we’re building just marke- rate housing right now, it’s a reverse… [it ends up] pricing working people out into the suburbs. We aren’t dealing with the lip service that’s focused on racial equity or economic equity.
To me the push for saturation of market-rate housing is one of the main problems that we’re looking at as far as not leveraging all our power against big developers. It’s not about not building, we need to deal with the question of supply, the question of having units available. But at the rate we’re going right now we’re actually increasing the crisis rather than addressing it.
Q: Is there a difference in your role as an advocate and your role as an elected official?
Too frequently we see politics as a career move. And in this case we’re talking about giving working people a voice in City Hall, so you’re never thinking about decisions in isolation. Even the day-to-day tasks of City Hall can be very political and have a dramatic impact on working people.
[Q: Like what?]
Every zoning variance. Every discussion of even a stoplight at a street corner can actually have a really big impact on how livability and affordability affects regular people. To me, it’s having an eye for where do we have larger community meetings? For example, I think with the appointment of a new Police Chief, we should have used that opportunity to have robust discussion all across the city about policing in the city of Minneapolis.