Housing Equity Now St. Paul (HENS) is a coalition representing St. Paul neighborhoods and residents who are dedicated to housing justice. The coalition is driven by the communities most affected by economic inequality – low-wealth people as well as Black and Indigenous people and other people of color.
For years, HENS coalition members have experienced the devastating impact of rising rents. Damaging rent spikes have disproportionately affected households of color and widened racial disparities in housing instability. St. Paul is a renter-majority city, but people of color are disproportionately represented among renters. While only 39% of white residents rent their homes, 82% of Black residents, 64% of Native residents, 62% of Latino residents, and 58% of Asian residents are renters. The movement for housing justice in St. Paul is deeply intertwined with the pursuit of racial justice.
Minnesota state law, however, limits the steps that cities can take to curb rising rents and keep people stably housed. The state of Minnesota is one of 36 states that preempt rent control – meaning that local governments do not have the authority to pass rent control on their own. A city in Minnesota can only enact a rent-control ordinance if it receives voters’ direct approval through a ballot measure.
In 2021, HENS mobilized around this issue with the launch of the Keep St. Paul Home campaign – an effort to pass a rent stabilization ballot measure in St. Paul’s November 2021 municipal elections. St. Paul residents came together across race, income, and ZIP code to pass the nation’s strongest rent stabilization policy. The campaign mobilized a grassroots base of volunteers to get out into the community and have conversations with their neighbors. Direct, interpersonal contacts were at the heart of the campaign’s successful strategy.
“Our campaign grew out of decades of organizing in the communities most impacted by housing injustice and countless renters who have told us that something must be done to stop predatory practices and egregious rent spikes that are specifically targeting and disproportionately harming households of color,” said Tram Hoang, campaign manager for Keep St. Paul Home. “We didn’t wait for policymakers – we leveraged the power of the people and direct democracy to do this for ourselves.”
To place rent stabilization on the ballot, HENS coalition members collected more than 9,100 petition signatures. Over the course of the campaign, HENS hosted 97 events across the city, filled more than 1,180 volunteer shifts, delivered more than 800 yard signs, and made nearly 248,000 voter contacts during election season. The campaign received endorsements from 47 elected officials.
Keep St. Paul Home had a powerful opponent in the Sensible Housing Ballot Committee, which organized against the rent stabilization measure. The Sensible Housing Ballot Committee raised more than 15 times as much money as the Keep St. Paul Home campaign. The committee’s $5 million in donations largely came from out-of-state contributors and LLCs, while Keep St. Paul Home raised $300,000 with more than half of donations coming from St. Paul residents.
Although the Keep St. Paul Home campaign had far fewer financial resources, its success proved that a grassroots campaign of passionate volunteers, rooted in their commitment to the community, can be more powerful than big-money contributions. The ballot measure ultimately passed with 53% of voters in support.
“This victory is a testament to renters demanding our dignity and the transformative impact of community organizing,” reflected Hoang. “Because of generations of economic exploitation and exclusion from homeownership, 82% of Black households in St. Paul are renters, compared to just 39% of white households. This policy will have a dramatic and immediate impact in advancing housing and racial justice in our city.”
St. Paul’s rent stabilization policy will be the nation’s most rigorous: it will limit rent increases to 3% annually, regardless of inflation, and will apply to new construction as well as existing buildings. Landlords cannot raise rents beyond the 3% threshold even when a new tenant begins a lease, in contrast with many other rent control ordinances across the country.
Going forward, HENS is turning its attention to the drafting and implementation of the rent control ordinance. As the St. Paul City Council crafts the details of its policy, HENS is working to ensure that the ordinance adheres to the original ballot measure. HENS is also connecting with renters who are experiencing rent hikes ahead of the date on which rent stabilization will go into effect.
Although the passage of the ballot measure is the most concrete outcome of the Keep St. Paul Home campaign, the election results do not capture the full extent of the coalition’s victory. The campaign deepened relationships, sparked a citywide conversation on housing and racial justice, strengthened renters’ power, and laid the groundwork for future achievements in the housing justice movement.
For its successful grassroots campaign to enact rent stabilization in St. Paul and center racial equity, NLIHC presents Housing Equity Now St. Paul with the 2022 Local Organizing Award. The annual NLIHC Organizing Awards recognize outstanding achievements in state, local, or residential organizing that further NLIHC’s mission of achieving racially and socially equitable public policy that ensures people with the lowest incomes have quality homes that are accessible and affordable in communities of their choice, with an emphasis on tenant- or resident-centered organizing and leadership.
To hear directly from HENS leaders and celebrate their victories, join us at the virtual NLIHC Policy Forum on March 22 and 23. Organizing award winners will be featured at the session “Best Practices in Organizing,” which will take place on March 23 at 3:30 pm ET.