Candidates vow better housing

by Cati Vanden Breul

UEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third article in a five-part series about Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections. The articles will lead toward the general election Nov. 8.

University advertising junior Megan Steidl has never seen or spoken to her landlord.

Steidl moved into a house in the Southeast Como eighborhood last June and has already had trouble with the property owners.

According to her lease, the owners should have completed repairs in the kitchen – including new flooring and a stove – by the end of summer.

When it wasn’t done by late September, Steidl threatened to withhold October’s rent until it was repaired.

“Then they came right away,” she said.

Absentee landlords are a problem in the Southeast Como neighborhood and many rental properties are not being inspected by the city, said James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

But elections are near, and policy reform could be on the way.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are holding local elections in November and the mayoral and city council candidates are talking about how to improve the safety and affordability of housing in the Twin Cities.

Steidl said she knew her house had code violations, such as a basement with only one exit, and problems with exposed wiring.

“It’s the first thing a lot of my friends notice when they come over,” she said.

In order to hold landlords more accountable for their properties, Minneapolis Ward 2 City Council candidate Cara Letofsky said all property owners must be licensed and face real consequences if they do not live up to city housing standards.

“There’s a real problem with the way that (the standards) are being enforced,” Letofsky said.

She said she would like to have educational forums in student neighborhoods at the beginning of each semester to inform students of their rights as tenants.

“So when their ceiling is falling in, they don’t just leave it, or don’t just go to the landlord who says he will get it fixed and won’t,” Letofsky said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is up for re-election, said he has already made progress in making housing safer.

“We’ve had an increase in the inspections, a significant increase,” he said. “When I came into office rental, units were inspected every 17 years, now it’s every five.”

But his opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, said there are still major concerns in neighborhoods like Southeast Como, and the city needs to be even more vigilant in its inspections.

“I think there’s a terrible problem of over-occupancy and exploitation of students by landlords, and we’ve got to be out there making inspections,” McLaughlin said.

Cam Gordon, Letofsky’s opponent, said there are problems with the way the city deals with overoccupancy issues.

In many buildings, only three unrelated adults can live together, while up to five related adults could occupy the same space, he said.

“It becomes a fairness and justice issue,” Gordon said. “If it’s safe for your sister or grandfather, it should be safe for your friends.”

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly said housing-safety concerns are not as significant in St. Paul as in Minneapolis.

Both he and opponent Chris Coleman agreed the real issue in St. Paul is creating and maintaining affordable housing for low-income residents.

Kelly introduced a policy initiative this week that would create or revitalize 6,000 housing units over the next four years. Twenty percent of the units would be made affordable to low-income residents and 300 units would be made into supportive housing for the chronically homeless, he said.

During his first term, Kelly completed a similar initiative in which the city – along with public and private partners – developed 5,000 housing units over four years.

But Coleman said even though St. Paul built new affordable housing units, changes in the market caused many more units to fall out of the category.

He said there needs to be more funding for public housing and that Kelly didn’t reach out enough to the state and federal governments to get it.

“It’s about forming partnerships. The city of St. Paul needs help from the state and federal government; it’s not something we can do on our own,” Coleman said. “And this mayor hasn’t done that.”

But Kelly said the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and the state government have given millions of dollars to support housing in St. Paul.

Housing affordability is also important to the Minneapolis candidates.

Rybak said he will commit to creating affordable housing and focus on first-time homebuyers.

Rybak said he made housing a priority and increased its funding more than $10 million during his term, despite a significant deficit when he was elected.

But McLaughlin said more than 2,000 rental units have been converted to condominiums.

“We’ve got to get some policies in place to help slow that down,” he said.

Rybak and McLaughlin said they think the University should build more residence halls to help lower the cost of student housing in the area.