A United States federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit lodged against the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, by a group of apartment owners. The litigants argued that the city’s rent control policy constituted an unconstitutional confiscation of private property. This lawsuit also included additional purported violations of various statutes of state and federal law. The decision marks a significant turning point in the ongoing debate surrounding the legitimacy of rent control measures.
Nancy Brasel’s Landmark Judgment
Presiding over the case was U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Brasel, who penned a comprehensive 51-page judgment on Monday, effectively terminating the federal lawsuit. Brasel flatly rejected the plaintiff’s request for a summary judgment, a legal motion requesting a final decision without proceeding to a full trial. In contrast, she granted the city’s request for summary judgment, effectively halting the lawsuit in its tracks.
Context: Saint Paul’s Rent Control Ordinance
The residents of Saint Paul approved the city’s rent control ordinance via a vote back in November of 2021. This statute imposed a 3% limit on annual rent increases, which at the time was recognized as one of the most stringent rent control policies in the United States. Subsequently, in September last year, the city council made amendments to this policy, exempting affordable housing projects as well as any new construction projects for the following 20 years.
The plaintiffs, Woodstone Limited Partnership and Lofts at Farmers Market LLC, own properties within the city. Woodstone’s property is located at 2335 Stewart Ave., off Shepard Road, and the Lofts at Farmers Market is located at 260 Fifth St. E. between downtown Mears Park and CHS Field.
Judge Brasel’s Opinion: A Rejection of Plaintiffs’ Claims
Judge Brasel issued an expansive opinion, finding little to no substance in the claims made by the plaintiffs. They had argued that the voter-approved 3% cap on yearly rent increases could potentially devalue property assets and disincentivize the investment in affordable housing. In her judgment, Brasel argued, “Plaintiffs contend that the amended ordinance will not work and will not meet its stated objectives. These predictions may come true, but a poor policy decision is not a due‐process violation.”
The judge highlighted that the city has put in place mechanisms for landlords to pursue rent increases of up to 8% via virtually automatic self-certifications. Increases beyond this limit can be sought with the approval of city staff. Contrasting this case with a 1976 suit against the city of Berkeley, California, she noted that Saint Paul has granted the majority of requested rent control exceptions without requiring public hearings. As proof of the system’s efficiency, she pointed out that out of 152 applications, only five led to appeals.
The Constitutionality of Rent Control
The argument that rent control violates the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution was also addressed. Judge Brasel declared this point moot in the case of the Lofts at Farmers Market, as their downtown St. Paul apartment building, established in 2012, falls within the recent 20 years and is thus exempt from rent control starting from January 1st. She further declared, “Woodstone also should have reasonably known that courts have long upheld the constitutionality of rent‐stabilization policies that guarantee a reasonable return on investment.”
Rent Control: Legal Precedents and Implications
Judge Brasel was not convinced by the argument that placing limits on landlord rents equates to the government essentially confiscating money from them in two ways, both in terms of actual income and the resale value of their property. In her decision, she referenced legal precedents for rent control from across the country, as well as state housing law, stating that the Minnesota housing market is “highly regulated” and that “courts have long held that comparable rent‐stabilization policies are constitutional.”
Judge Brasel concluded her judgment by noting that, in the context of rent stabilization, the Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that states have considerable authority to regulate housing conditions and landlord-tenant relationships without the necessity of providing compensation for all economic injuries that such regulation might incur.