CONFESSIONS OF AN UNREPENTANT MAOIST: Rent control

BY ED FELIEN

“Dear landlord
Please don’t put a price on my soul” –Bob Dylan, 1967

In 1974 the vacancy rate for rental housing in Minneapolis was 3%. Rents had gone up 35% on the West Bank in the city-supported Cedar-Riverside Towers and 15% around Loring Park. Poor people were being moved out of their neighborhoods. They were being gentrified.

Working with the West Bank Tenants Union and others, I proposed that the City Council institute rent controls to limit the rent increases that were destroying communities. Rents would be frozen at the level charged on July 1, 1973, but would allow increases in rent from that date to cover landlords’ operating costs. There would be a rent control board in each ward to which a landlord or tenant could appeal.

Malcolm Ritter reported on the City Council public hearing in the Minnesota Daily of Nov. 27, 1974. He wrote: “ ‘In the absence of regulation,’ Felien said, ‘speculation, profiteering and other disruptive practices cannot be forestalled.’ Because of the ‘emergency’ situation, he said, the city is able to use its police powers to control rents.

“Noting that the question of whether or not the city can legally control rents has been raised against his proposal, Felien called the objection ‘ultimately a question that can only be decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court.’

“He said that the opinion of the city attorney, which holds such action not allowed unless the legislature passes enabling legislation, is ‘subjective’ rather than based on legal precedent.

“Felien also explained that his proposal called for rent levels of July 1, 1973, because that is the date federal wage and price controls were lifted. ‘Rents at that point began to skyrocket,’ he said.”

I didn’t have the votes to pass rent control. I needed seven, and I could only get up to three or four. Dick Miller, my nemesis, chair of the committee holding the public hearing, moved that the City Council establish a rental housing task force to study the problem.

Malcolm Ritter reported: “Felien opposed the establishment of the committee, commenting ‘I don’t think that by burying this issue for 90 days that we’re going to change anybody’s mind on rent control.’

“’It’s such a little thing that we’re asking—to control one element of the inflationary spiral that’s affecting us all,’ he said.”

The Star Tribune attacked that statement directly in their editorial on Dec. 2, 1974, “Rent controls: nibbling at the corner.” They concluded: “The basic cause of rent increases lies in the economy. Rising costs are the enemy. To attack them through rent controls is to nibble at the corners of the problem.”

Their editorial misrepresented the vacancy rate, ignored the cartels that controlled housing in Loring Park, set off false alarms about a creeping bureaucracy and concluded by saying we shouldn’t do anything because it’s a national problem—which was a rationale for indifference.

A quick petition at Mill City Co-op, one of the early small food co-ops on the corner of 26th and Bloomington, got 93 signatures favoring rent control.

Creating a task force was the easiest way to kill the proposal without actually voting against it. It was clear there was no way it would pass the council, but some of us refused to let the issue die. We started gathering petitions to have the question put to the voters in the next election. We would amend the City Charter to establish rent control.

We gathered enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. The phrasing for the ballot was simple enough, but our opponents were clever enough to get the complicated legalese written by a very young attorney that was the actual language to be inserted into the charter. The proposed ordinance was so complicated it was almost incomprehensible. They beat us by printing and circulating the full text and saying Vote No.

Some progressive groups are talking about a new campaign for rent control in Minneapolis. If there’s one lesson to be learned from our experiences 40 years ago, it is to keep it simple with specific and concrete examples.

Good luck!

PHOTO CAPTION: Ed Felien confronting landlords at the Rent Control hearing

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