Socialist Alternative

Mpls City Council Backs Down to Mayor Frey’s Veto: Lessons for the Next Phase of the Fight for Rent Control

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On Friday, August 13 Minneapolis City Council failed to override Mayor Frey’s veto of the renter-led pathway to pass a strong rent control policy. It’s another capitulation for the Democratic Party-dominated City Council in the face of entrenched opposition from Mayor Frey after the George Floyd rebellion. More importantly, it’s a massive setback for renters and the fight for rent control at a crucial moment when renters face mounting debt and the federal eviction ban is about to expire.

Worst of all, the sinking of an independent path for renters to put forward a rent control proposal was a defeat that was entirely avoidable. Up until a week before the final vote, the movement had maintained a veto-proof majority on the City Council. Though the renter-led pathway to passing rent control is dead for the time being, the city hall-led pathway is still on the ballot on November 2.

Demands In the Hands of City Council  

Originally, the City Council proposed two pathways for passing a rent control policy. One ballot measure would allow a city hall-led process, which is open-ended, and relies on consensus-making behind closed doors inside City Hall to dictate when and what rent control policy will be proposed for renters. In this case, the City Council would have full discretion when to move forward, meaning they might decide to never craft a rent control proposal. The other pathway allowed for renters to put forward their own initiative for a rent control policy, to reflect their interests, which always come last in the corporate-dominated back rooms of City Hall. Unsurprisingly, it was the renter-led pathway that faced the most opposition from a wing of the City Council, the political establishment, and the Mayor.

Even with the limits of City Council leading on the rent control process, it’s essential that City Hall’s defeat for the renter-led process does not translate into a defeat for rent control in general. The fact this pathway for rent control is moving forward is a testament to years of relentless organizing for rent control by hundreds of community organizations, unions, renters, supportive homeowners and faith leaders, who eventually coalesced into a coalition called Minneapolis United for Rent Control. When Socialist Alternative first resurrected calls for rent control during Ginger Jentzen’s campaign for City Council in 2017, it was almost universally opposed and mocked by politicians, big developers, and the corporate media, but broadly supported by working-class renters in Minneapolis. 

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Democratic Party-dominated City Council failed to overcome procedural opposition from their own staff and city departments. Allowing regular people to come up with new policies and vote them up or down diminishes bureaucratic influence on the city. The city council wavered when faced with political opposition from big developers and the landlord lobby. We also should not be surprised that Mayor Frey resorted to voter suppression tactics to block the renter-led pathway. 

These lessons point to the need to build an even stronger and more relentless movement. However, there are important differences and debates that arose within the movement that need to be clarified and discussed as we go forward. 

Should We Depend on City Hall or Build a Movement?

All movements that fight for the needs of working-class and oppressed people come under pressure to demobilize instead of directly taking on the ruling class, its ideas, and its institutions. On top of this, the mass media will ridicule and undermine the cause at every turn. The police and courts will skillfully try to repress the movement. Political institutions will try to impose the  official “democratic” process of government, emphasizing the interpersonal dynamics of individual politicians, and arcane procedures that routinely fail the interests of working class people. This procedural finagaling serves the ruling class by insulating the political conflict from working-class pressure.

From the start, all social justice movements face the tension of either adapting to these challenging conditions, or more openly confronting them. Essentially, this pressure is concentrated on the movement to dull its demands, lower its expectations, or hand over the momentum to politicians who limit the debate to what’s acceptable to themselves and the political establishment.

In the initial stages of struggle, it is often easier to bring a coalition together for clear actions and demands. However, as the movement makes an impact, the obstacles from the establishment emerge, and differences of strategy often arise. As the full nature of the fight becomes more apparent, more defined wings of the movement can develop, which may even still share the same general demand, but reflect distinct differences over how to win it. When the movement is faced with a concrete decision about what to do next, these wings can crystallize into the formation of entirely new groups. 

These dynamics defined the first year of fighting for the rent control pathways in Minneapolis, and understanding them is essential in order to continue the struggle to win a strong rent control policy.

“Rent Control” Versus “Rent Stabilization”

City Council and a section of housing justice non-profits use the term “rent stabilization,” mainly because they perceive it as a way to win over housing policy wonks who believe the landlord lobby’s talking points that “rent control” has not worked in the past. Socialist Alternative argues for using the term “rent control” because it reflects the experience of renters in a city like New York or San Francisco who will tell you (and their friends in Minneapolis) that rent control is probably the reason they can continue to stay in these cities. Most importantly, “rent control” is easily understood by the renters who need to mobilize to win any progressive changes to housing policy.

In Minneapolis, the debate over these terms reflected a broader debate about the overall orientation of the campaign. The real estate lobbyists didn’t make any distinction, and attacked “rent stabilization” with the same gusto that they typically attack rent control where it exists. In a lobbying letter written to encourage Minneapolis City Council to use voter suppression tactics to block a popular vote on rent control, the real estate lobbyists said “rent stabilization is a crude and incredibly expensive policy that would lead ‘a path to financial ruin for the city.’”

From the perspective of working-class people, rent control is essential to shift power away from corporate landlords and big developers, who profit off housing crises that they themselves created. Rent control is definitively in the interest of working-class renters and homeowners. Instead of conceding ground to corporate landlords’ and big developers’ decades of relentless attacks on rent control by trying to disguise the idea as something else, we need to clearly state what we want and build a stronger, independent movement of ordinary people, organized and ready to fight for every reform to housing under capitalism. 

The Role of Demands

From the beginning, Minneapolis United for Rent Control clearly defined what it meant by rent control: to cap rent increases to the cost of living, applied to every rental unit citywide regardless of the building’s size and date of construction. Whether to put forward a proposal at all was itself a debate within the movement. Minneapolis City Council Members and housing justice non-profits refused to define strong rent control, even though the city’s own study confirmed the benefits of Minneapolis United for Rent Control’s proposal. In fact, in Minneapolis’ sister city of St. Paul, housing justice organizers are already putting a similar policy to voters on their November 2021 ballot.

The response from the real-estate lobby helps answer this debate. In the same letter mentioned above, these lobbyists said rent control would only stop a “limited subset of rent increases for a lucky few renters.” Here they used a cunning strategy. They called up the failures of rent control in other areas  — where strong rent control was undermined by loopholes that landlords demanded, for example limiting the pool of eligible units in San Francisco to those built before 1979 —  to claim that it couldn’t work. They used the success of real estate interests’ loopholes like “vacancy decontrol” in cities like New York to cast doubt on its viability in Minneapolis. 

Besides the fact that renters will be motivated to vote “yes” if the movement is clear about fighting for a strong policy, without pointing to a clearly defined proposal for strong rent control, there’s no way to answer such attacks. Unlike the City Council and other housing non-profits, Minneapolis United for Rent Control was able to respond by pointing to a clear policy that does not include carve-outs like “vacancy decontrol.” Succinctly, rent control works for tenants unless it is beset by loopholes, so we want strong, universal rent control. Without the positive proposal from Minneapolis United for Rent Control, these attacks would have gone unanswered by City Council Members and the housing justice NGOs.

The Defeat of the Renter-Led Pathway

Working people are accustomed to politicians selling them out to corporate interests, but knowing this is a possible outcome isn’t the same as putting forward a strategy to combat the sell-out. As City Council started to backtrack on support for the renter-led process, the divisions within Minneapolis United for Rent Control fully crystallized into the formation of a seperate coalition called Home to Stay. Home to Stay initially launched on July 19, three days before a crucial City Council committee meeting where they voted on whether or not to put both pathways onto the November 2 ballot. To maintain maximum unity in the face of a City Council which was already waffling, Minneapolis United for Rent Control shared Home to Stay’s call to action, which called on the City Council to vote yes on both “charter amendments.”

This unity resulted in winning a veto-proof majority on City Council, but because of procedural issues, City Council would essentially need to do the same vote again at their meeting on August 6. Recognizing big developers, real estate lobbyists, and Mayor Frey would capitalize on the additional time to erode support on the City Council, Minneapolis United for Rent Control called for a rally for August 6 at City Hall right before the meeting.

At the August 4 committee meeting, these fears were confirmed when eleven votes on City Council dropped to seven votes, two votes shy of overriding the Mayor’s veto. The Home to Stay coalition did not issue any update or call to action following the defeat at the committee meeting. The following day, Home to Stay made two posts, one thanking an individual City Council Member for voting “yes” but failing to mention that there were not enough votes to override a veto, and another misleading post later that day implying that the movement had won. In a sense, it’s always possible to “win” if you’re willing to move the goalposts, and that’s what happened here.

Over a hundred people participated in the August 6 rally, including representatives from five unions, community organizations, and the Council Members who authored the renter-led option. The rally culminated in an action targeting Mayor Frey’s likely veto. The Home to Stay coalition did not show up even though they were invited to shape the action, share the stage, and have a speaker. 

As expected, Mayor Frey vetoed the renter-led pathway. Minneapolis United for Rent Control immediately issued a clear call to action to mobilize renters to pressure City Council to override his veto. Home to Stay never mentioned that people could override the veto, despite the fact it had already become a widespread public debate.

In contrast, Minneapolis United for Rent Control fought with everything it had to organize grassroots pressure to override Mayor Frey’s veto, both because it was the right thing to do, and also because the same momentum Mayor Frey, big developers, and the landlord lobby gained by pressuring City Council to flip-flop on their earlier votes will be used to water down the city council-led process. This is why fighting for the renter-led pathway was essential: it would allow renters to bypass gridlock and opposition within City Hall to put forward their own initiative, which is an inherent threat to the “inside game” lobbying strategy.

The Weakness of the “Inside Game”

Hesitancy to boldly defend “rent control,” talk about a clear policy demand, or fight for the renter-led pathway came from some within the movement who wanted to maintain room to make a compromise with City Council. The weakness of this approach comes from ignoring how the corporate landlords and political establishment fight proposals that threaten their profits and the status quo. Based on such a compromise, council members could support the city-council led path but disagree with rent control. As evidence of this, the Council-led process passed with 12 of 13 council members’ support, even while council members spoke against the substance of rent control. Clearly, guiding the process into city hall gives them the power to water down, dilute, or delay rent control. 

Working people understand this important difference between refusing to fight and fighting as hard as possible but being unable to win. In the end, we may not win everything that Minneapolis United for Rent Control calls for in a strong rent control policy. However, there is a key difference between a rotten compromise, at the beginning of the fight, which sacrifices the needs of the movement in order to accommodate the current status quo in City Hall, and compromise on the basis of the movement’s strength. Socialists view a “compromise” as a temporary cease-fire in the broader class struggle that occurs when our side does not yet have the power to fully overcome the power of our opponents. 

There’s a difference between witnessing a robbery and being unable to stop it, and witnessing a robbery and jumping into the getaway car, which is what the most ardent supporters of the “inside strategy” eventually did.

Where the Movement Should Go From Here

While there were sharp disagreements at key moments of the charter amendment campaigns, Socialist Alternative stands for the widest possible unity to fight for the strongest possible rent control process and proposal, and will organize alongside anyone else who is willing to do so. This means campaigning to win the limited process to pass rent control that will appear on the ballot on November 2, though it may quickly become necessary to resurrect the renter-led pathway next year if the process gets bogged down. 

In the interest of the strongest movement and unity, this also means Minneapolis United for Rent Control coalition — including the thousands of renters, union members, and young people it represents — will work alongside the Home to Stay coalition, despite disagreements over the renter-led process. However, we will continue to argue that the self-organization of renters into a democratic movement is the central force required to win a strong proposal, regardless of the process, rather than viewing renters as an auxiliary force to be mobilized when the lobbying strategy breaks down.

While renters will be able to influence the city hall-led process, the process as a whole will favor the needs of the right-wing of City Council, big developers, landlord lobbyists, and Mayor Frey (if he’s able to win reelection this year). Big developers and real-estate lobbyists will continue to unite with Republicans at the state level to block rent control, and openly campaign against rent control in Minneapolis while also demanding a “seat at the table” in the final negotiations. Although small landlords make up only 16% of all landlords in Minneapolis, and these people less frequently price-gouge tenants like big developers do, the corporate media will amplify their concerns to try to change the debate. We need to be clear that renters should not subsidize the small landlord community, and if City Hall is genuinely concerned, they could for example tax big developers and lower taxes on working class homeowners, offer interest free home improvement loans, etc.

To counteract the developer-funded counterattack, renters and working class homeowners need to organize their own independent power, and be prepared to fight outside the city’s “inclusive” formal process up until the last vote is cast. To do this, the movement to pass rent control needs to have a grassroots character, where renters can take ownership over the decision making, discuss how to respond to attacks from City Council and the landlord lobby, and organize to win. By doing so, the movement to win rent control can become a broader vehicle to fight on all the issues renters face, for example defeating slumlord conditions, lifting of eviction bans, winning increased tenant protections, and, crucially, tenants unions to collectively negotiate issues with their landlord.

The for-profit housing market is fundamentally at odds with the needs of the working class and oppressed people. A much broader step towards solving the housing crisis would be to tax big developers and corporations to build tens of thousands of high quality, socially owned, permanently affordable homes. However, such a massive step forward would be under constant attack from the ruling class and their political allies, much like public housing is today and has been historically. A society where housing is genuinely a human right is a socialist society, where housing is democratically controlled by working class people, not big developers or corporate landlords.

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