In the weeks running up to the November election, I’ve watched white liberal courage break in real time. This year, St. Paul residents have the chance to support a ballot measure initiated, researched and led by communities of color, a policy that would fundamentally shift the unbalanced relationship between landlords and tenants.
Voting yes for rent stabilization should be an easy choice. But an influential fraction of white urbanists has muddled the conversation about Question 1, giving well-meaning white people the opening to turn unfounded caution — and a desperate desire to be “right” — into complicity with landlords and the wealthiest people in our city.
The “Yes in My Backyard” or YIMBY concept was created as the inclusive, pro-renter contrast to the “Not in my Backyard” or NIMBY movement that has relied on dog whistle racism to oppose new housing in predominantly white neighborhoods. Unfortunately, a small handful of mostly white men have given too many YIMBYs reason to vote no on this critical policy.
These white urbanists have reassured potential no voters that they’re a good person, that they really care about tenants, they really want rent stabilization, honest, just not this one. They have correctly identified the housing crisis and its devastating effects, but go no further. If they attempted to solve the problem, they’d no longer have the correct analysis. There would be expectations then, responsibility beyond another article weeping for housing supply.
None of these folks have dedicated thousands of hours to building community, to collecting signatures, to standing up, iron-spined, to the richest people in the city. The Keep St. Paul Home campaign did. The policy on the ballot was created and carried through the petitioning process and to this point by women, organizers of color, and tenants. Those three groups are rarely the engine driving our city’s largest political conversations. But in whiter more powerful circles they are often fretted over. “How do we engage them?” “How can we increase their turn out in important election years?” “How can we find out what resources they need?” I’ve found an easy answer to those questions: Support their work and follow their leadership.
So it’s both baffling and disappointing that when communities of color are engaged, when renters have an important issue to turn out for in an election, these same people turn into armchair housing experts with superior analysis to those with direct experience of housing instability.
Among the the paternalistic critiques from urbanists is the assumption that the Keep St. Paul Home campaign didn’t do its homework. That the policy — which would limit annual rent increases to 3% for all units in the city — will have unintended consequences that the authors weren’t smart enough to see.
Some of the most common concerns:
“The ordinance does not exempt new housing.”
That’s because simply adding new market rate homes to our housing ecosystem and waiting for the mythical trickle down effect isn’t enough. New housing can still be priced profitably for developers but by including it in the ordinance it prevents runaway rent spikes. Homes in our community should be homes, not speculative investment products.
“The ordinance doesn’t index rent increases to inflation.”
As long as worker incomes aren’t indexed to inflation, why should property owners have such favorable profit controls attached to the pricing of their “commodity” (which also happens to be people’s homes). If there were a hypothetical inflation crisis, would we rather see tenants evicted across the city as rents race away from wages, or banks and developers take a profit haircut while neighbors stay in their homes?
“The ordinance does not include vacancy decontrol.”
Vacancy Decontrol is when a unit is freed from price controls after a tenant moves out. It is also the genesis of every horror story about landlords in rent stabilized cities letting their properties degrade to chase tenants out so they can raise the rent. Decontrol is a fiscal incentive for neglect and cruelty.
Clearly, there’s good reason none of these are included in the ordinance: each has been used as a loophole benefitting landlords.
What’s really in conflict here is the two different frames of thought. YIMBY detractors fear that the ordinance does not offer enough deference and support to the market. Supporters and directly impacted residents know the market is the genesis of our current housing crisis and we must separate housing from the demands of the profit motive. We have tried market based solutions to address housing supply and we’ve only sunk deeper into this crisis. It’s time for a new approach.
The root of the opposition is as predictable as it is well financed: The Minnesota Multifamily Housing Association. Under the guise of the Sensible Housing Ballot Committee they’ve raised nearly $4 million — the majority of which has come from outside the Twin Cities — for mailers, dialers, and canvassers. This is because no self respecting politico or community leader would do their work for free, shilling for the unlimited profits of those already holding all the cash. That’s why it’s deeply disconcerting to see YIMBYs adopting their talking points, giving every white, college educated, home-owning voter the inciting moment they needed to turn tail from this year’s best chance at moving the ball on the housing crisis.
YIMBYs fail to see that either position on rent stabilization shakes their position as “correct on housing.” In support they would have had to shed their market-based mantras and would have found themselves among socialists and tenants, the full resources of the real estate industry arrayed against them, telling them they’d erred. In opposition they have attempted to have it both ways and it’s cost them their credibility. The real estate industry will be happy to use ‘em and lose ‘em and the tenants will remain powerless as they were before.
Landlords hold an inherent power over renters. Their financial control of a person’s home means that by exercising their right to free speech a tenant may endanger the security and safety of their living arrangement. People are tired of living their lives under threat. People are no longer satisfied by a housing strategy that centers the profits of the community’s wealthiest citizens. People are ready to call the housing industry’s bluff. We need to be brave enough to change the paradigm. The market will not save us, we must save ourselves.
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