We need strong rent control: Lessons from the Fight for $ 15

When Minneapolis passed the Midwest’s first minimum wage of $ 15, and St. Paul followed suit a year later, it was a historic victory for workers, especially women and coloreds – disproportionately pushed into low-wage jobs. Our movement won over entrenched opposition from the majority of elected officials in both town halls, who generally spoke for $ 15 per hour minimum wage, while doing everything in their power to undermine, delay and confuse its passage.

Now the real gains of $ 15 are threatened by rising commodity prices, medical treatment, lack of union recognition and rising rents, which have risen by an average of 10% nationally in the past year alone. That’s why tenants in both cities voted for rent control. In order to win a strong policy that actually benefits tenants, it is necessary to build a relentless movement of unions, faith groups, community organizations, working class homeowners and most importantly, tenants.

As a result of the growing movement for rent control, the Minneapolis City Council has launched its own process, which does not even explicitly set the goal of strong rent control. It is currently being guided by councilors who openly spoke out against strong rent controls last summer when they killed the tenant-led road. The language of “involving all stakeholders” describes a long history of tables littered with corporate and real estate interests with the goal of a compromise position. At such tables the people of the working class are always at a disadvantage.

To win $ 15, our movement collected 20,000 signatures to present the resolution to voters, but Minneapolis City Council legally doubled twice to keep $ 15 an hour from the ballot. The council set up the Workplace Advisory Committee (WAC) and we sat at every table and talked to everyone who was really open to adopting the strongest possible $ 15 an hour. While the WAC has spearheaded a law on wage theft and other important proposals, we need to be clear: Fifteen were won through a showdown between workers’ and corporate interests, not a committee composed of Minneapolis City Hall.

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Corporate interests sat in committee at City Hall to discuss workers’ rights, then turned around, lined up with state-level Republicans and sued the city to stop the implementation of sick leave and $ 15. The same property lobby that opposes almost any pro-tenancy policy, even the federal deferral ban, apparently has no seat on a committee to pass rent control.

Minneapolis City Hall will pull its feet and claim it needs more data. This outcry has come from council members who ignore the city’s own, the University of Minnesota provided studies on both $ 15 and rent control. In both cases, the surveys showed what working people have been saying all along: the rent will not wait.

Some Minneapolis workers are only reaching $ 15 an hour this year because corporate interests were successful in pushing City Hall to dilute it. Our movement mobilized for the very last vote to defeat further pro-corporate amendments to segregated industries and left workers. Without the clarity that our power in the streets was necessary to counter the big business lobbyists in the back rooms of City Hall, it is unlikely we would have won.

Also St. Paul’s rent control victory offers a powerful lesson for our movement. Mayor Melvin Carter is fighting to remove the policy approved by a majority of voters, with developer-friendly exceptions. This is at odds with the national momentum behind the tenants’ rights movement, which has fought back to defeat cuts previously won by the landlord lobby as “exemption from vacancies.” Cutouts in new constructions are a death knell for strong rent control, which incentives major developers to bulldoze existing affordable units to avoid rent control mandates.

In Minneapolis, the corridors of Lake Street and West Broadway Avenue are ready for development over the next many years; without strong rent controls, these working-class, historically black, and immigrant neighborhoods are threatened with being quickly priced. This is why every rent control in Minneapolis should be universal, without these business exceptions, and retroactively used to cut across pricing.

The most important lesson from the $ 15 minimum wage campaign in Minneapolis is this: working people can not limit themselves to what is considered acceptable by the political establishment and its ties to big business. We need to organize ourselves independently around our collective need to get things done.

Ginger Jentzen is a member of the Socialist Alternative and a volunteer organizer at Minneapolis United for Rent Control. Guillermo Lindsay worked in fast food and played a leading role in Fight for $ 15 alongside Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL). Rod Adams is the CEO of the New Justice Project and was the main organizer of the Minneapolis fight for a minimum wage of $ 15.

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