Enforcement of SAFE Housing regulations scheduled to begin March 1

By Jane McClure

Saint Paul’s new SAFE (Stable, Accessible, Fair and Equitable) Housing Tenant Protections Ordinance won unanimous approval from the City Council on July 8. However, the work is just beginning as city officials start establishing measures to enforce the new ordinance before it takes effect in March.

Advocates contend that those measures will reduce displacement and protect tenants from unethical landlords. They point to the city’s shortage of affordable housing and the need to help protect low-income people and people of color. That is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, they say, as advocates brace for an upcoming spate of foreclosures and evictions.

However, many landlords and property management companies object to the new regulations, claiming that they add to the costs and complexities of renting. Some predict that more landlords will sell their properties rather than deal with more regulations.

   

More than half of Saint Paul residents are renters and the city is facing an affordable housing shortage.

One of the most controversial aspects of the new rules is a “just cause” provision that requires landlords to provide written reasons why a lease is not being renewed and limits conditions under which they may terminate a lease. Saint Paul is the first city in the state to have such a measure. Some tenants and advocacy groups claim leases were being terminated simply because tenants asked for repairs.

Landlords can still opt to not renew a lease if a tenant has not paid or is habitually late with rent, or violated significant lease conditions. A lease can also be terminated if a landlord wishes to renovate a unit or wants to rent that unit to a family member.

 

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Council member Mitra Jalali said the coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on housing access in Saint Paul as a public health issue. “I believe it couldn’t have come at a more important time,” she said.

The ordinance also limits the use of credit and criminal history in screening tenants, and changes how past evictions are considered when a rental application is reviewed. Tenants cannot be denied a lease if they had a misdemeanor more than three years ago or a felony more than seven years ago. They could still be turned down if they had been convicted of murder, distributing or manufacturing controlled substances, arson, kidnapping, assault, robbery, manslaughter or criminal sexual conduct, or if they are on the lifetime sexual offender registry.

The ordinance caps the deposit a landlord can require to one month’s rent. Landlords of all types of rental residential properties will be required to provide the city and tenants with a 90-day advance notice of an impending sale. Landlords are also required to provide tenants with packets of information on tenants’ rights and responsibilities.

Council members praised the ordinance, as did Mayor Melvin Carter in a statement after the vote. Supporters cited the two years of work on the ordinance

Council member Mitra Jalali said the coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on housing access in Saint Paul as a public health issue. She said she is “incredibly proud” to have played a role in the ordinance’s passage.

“I believe it couldn’t have come at a more important time,” Jalali said.

Council member Chris Tolbert said he will be monitoring the ordinance closely as it goes forward, and urged the council to be flexible when looking at its impact on the city’s rental housing market. Tolbert said that while he does not agree with everything in the ordinance, he wants to see it go forward and for the council to be willing to make changes to it if needed.

“I don’t think any ordinance should be set in stone,” Tolbert said.

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