UPDATED February 4, 2016 — Bernie-the-cabdriver, sitting in his green and white taxi van, calls it as he sees it, and he doesn’t like South St. Paul’s proposed rental ordinance changes. The changes will fly under the radar for most people, because almost no one pays attention to city council meetings. Making city ordinances, Bernie says, is “like farting under a blanket.” Eventually, the smell gets out, but nobody knows who is responsible.
Along with other changes, the South St. Paul city council plans to limit rental housing to one house per block. That, says Bernie, is just not right.
The city council wants to keep out renters, so the proposal says only one single family home per block could be rented. All others would have to be owner-occupied.
“It’s kind of like somebody made a speech that said, ‘All them there renters, they’re all a bunch of bad people,’” Bernie said. “Well, jumpin’ jiminy! It’s so sad! It’s prejudice in its purest form.”
Besides the prejudice against renters, Bernie is concerned about potential “heartbreak and hardship” for homeowners. He describes hypothetical homeowners, Harold and Ann, who have raised their children and lived in their home for 37 years.
“Scenario number one,” says Bernie, happens when their daughter in Colorado and her husband are in a bad car crash. The husband dies, the daughter is injured, and Harold and Ann jump on a plane and head out to Colorado to stay as long as the daughter and grandkids need them. They hope everything can get back to normal and they can return. They don’t want to sell their house, but they don’t want to let it sit empty, and can’t afford to keep it without some money coming in. If someone else on the block has a rental house, Harold and Ann are out of luck.
In another scenario, Harold dies, and Ann can’t keep up the house on her own. They always intended that their son, now in the military, would get the house when he gets out. But he has two years left, and Ann has to go into assisted living. Once again, the new rental ordinance would leave the house sitting empty, deteriorating, costing money but not bringing in anything, for two years.
“Those are the type of scenarios that concern me about the ordinances,” Bernie says. “Anything that would interfere with choices of someone who purchased a home … It’s not fair to create a situation where they can’t retain ownership in their home without leaving it empty.”
South St. Paul follows the lead of other cities that limit rental housing and student housing. Back in 2012, the city of St. Paul city council created a student housing zone around St. Thomas, imposing a buffer zone between off-campus student housing. The buffer zone is about the length of three houses, so you could still have a couple of student houses on each block. South St. Paul’s ordinance restricts all single-family rentals throughout the city, with only one rental allowed in a block that has up to 14 houses on it.
South St. Paul’s proposed ordinance is similar to a West St. Paul ordinance that limits rentals to no more than 10 percent of single-family homes on a block. Winona, Mankato and Northfield also limit rentals, with these ordinances seeming to be aimed at student rentals. A group of Winona homeowners sued to invalidate their city’s ordinance, but by the time the case got to the Minnesota Supreme Court, they had sold their houses, so the case was dismissed.
The proposed amendment also says that it is illegal to rent a dwelling for occupancy by “more than three unrelated persons.” Such provisions typically aim at keeping out group homes and student renters. As limits on group homes or housing for people with disabilities, these provisions have been shot down as discriminatory under federal law, though that doesn’t keep cities from trying. South St. Paul’s unrelated persons limitation has been part of the city’s zoning regulations, and the proposed amendments would codify it as part of the rental ordinance.
Overall, it seems the proposed rental ordinance changes have their roots in a feeling that renters are undesirable. That, in turn, is related to prejudice against lower-income people, who are more likely to rent than to own homes. Median household income for Minnesota homeowners in 2013 was $60,702, while median income for renter households was $32,348. Especially with Minnesota’s scarcity of affordable housing, putting more barriers in the way of renters seems like the wrong thing to do.
UPDATED February 4, 2016: Bernie called back: the city council passed amendments to the rental ordinance – but dropped the per-block restriction.