We sat down with Ward 10 City Councilmember Aisha Chughtai who is running for re-election this year. We talked about her time in office, rent stabilization polices, the City's approach to homelessness, public safety polices, transit investments, and more. This is part of a series of interviews of people running for City Council – if you have any questions or feedback, use the “Add Context” box at the bottom of this piece.
Southwest Voices: Why do you think you deserve to be re-elected?
Councilmember Aisha Chughtai: I ran for City Council because I wanted to serve alongside Ward 10 residents, and those that were most impacted by our decisions and to make our city a more just and equitable place.
I have honored my commitment to lead alongside Ward 10 residents. I hope to continue to do that as the Ward 10 councilmember.
SWV: When we talked last time, you mentioned housing as one of the biggest issues you wanted to focus on. What would you say about your record on housing so far?
AC: I’ve done the best I can to make sure that our city has as much affordable and dignified housing for residents. From enacting stronger tenant protections like rent stabilization or tenant opportunity to purchase, or making sure community voices are at the center of what happens with the Kmart site, or addressing the city’s response to homelessness more meaningfully, those are all ways that housing has been a priority for my office.
SWV: You’ve been supportive of rent stabilization efforts and expanding protections for renters. What do you think an ideal rent stabilization policy for the city looks like?
AC: An ideal rent stabilization policy is a strong tool that stabilizes the cost of rent, provides stability for the market and, more importantly, for tenants to know what the cost of their housing is going to be for years to come. It’s one that ensures that renters can stay in the communities that they’re a part of and that we minimize displacement of tenants in our neighborhood. And it’s one that checks the monopoly that large corporations have on price gouging working-class people for what should be a human right.
I believe in a strong rent control policy, which means that we have a fixed cap of 3% on annual increases of rent. It means that we have vacancy controls so that the 3% cap is attached to the unit, and not the renter. Vacancy decontrol, which is the opposite of that, means that landlords can raise the rent to whatever they want to when the renter moves out. In practice, in other communities, vacancy decontrol is used as a tool to displace and evict renters so the cost of rent can be increased dramatically.
That’s why I believe that in Ward 10, where 80% of our residents are renters, we need vacancy decontrol to prevent the displacement of our neighbors. I believe in making sure we don’t have exemptions for new construction or other large-scale exemptions. I want to make sure we have strong mechanisms of enforcement for both tenants and landlords.
We shouldn’t ask that small landlords, who mostly don’t raise the rent and do take care of their property, to have to compete in a market with landlords that don’t live in the community, don’t hold their tenants in high regard, and don’t maintain their property. When we have strong mechanisms of enforcement, that allows for everyone to be very clear on how the law is going to be enforced and for that enforcement to happen equally across the spectrum.
Last year, the City Council created the Rent Stabilization Work Group. Our intent in doing that was for a broad group of stakeholders to give us what a rent stabilization policy should look like. The group of people that made that policy included renters, landlords, financial interests, affordable housing providers, and they all spoke very clearly and said that we need to pass a strong policy.
Also, they were very clear that they don’t support other forms of decontrol. They provided us with a thoughtful recommendation for doing a capital improvements exemption. That means a property owner can make significant capital improvements, provide documentation of that, and get an exemption to raise rents higher. This allows for tenants to live in quality and dignified housing and that there’s a process so that this policy doesn’t get exploited.
Sometimes it could be used in bad faith, like adding a coat of paint and raising the rent by 10% the next year, but this policy allows for people to put in a new stove, or a water heater, and be able to get an exemption to raise rent to offset cost.
SWV: What have you learned from what’s gone on with St. Paul’s rent stabilization policy in the last year-and-a-half?
AC: We still know very little about rent stabilization in St. Paul. We know renters initiated a process and put policy on the ballot. Their policy was very specific. It was approved by voters and went into effect.
A few months after that, the Council made some adjustments to the policy, and now the policy looks very different than what it used to. I think there are a lot of misconceptions to make the case against rent control. One of those is that the result of St. Paul’s rent control policy was a massive decline in development permits. Certainly there’s partial truth to that, but St. Paul saw a decline in permits six months before the policy was approved by voters. Two months before the policy was proposed, permits were already down. Then, permits started to go back up before the Council changed the policy. There are other market forces impacting that development. I think it’s false to blame rent stabilization for what was happening in the market at that unique moment in time.
I think that the studies we’ve seen come out of St. Paul so far have only looked at one quarter of the data that we now have on St. Paul. We just don’t know. What we do know is that the result of a rent stabilization policy is to use a strong tool to protect tenants and prevent displacement, and to make sure we’re prioritizing working-class people and renters in our housing market.
SWV: How do you feel about the city’s approach to homelessness?
AC: The Frey administration’s approach to homelessness is inhumane, first and foremost. It is ineffective. It is also an incredibly costly, inhumane, and ineffective policy. They’re playing whack-a-mole with people’s lives. Moving them from place to place with violent encampment closures isn’t helping anyone. It’s certainly not addressing homelessness in a holistic way.
I’ll give you an example of something that happened in my neighborhood, a block away from me. There was an encampment that showed up. It was very small, six or seven residents. This encampment came during that stretch of six or seven evictions that took place last October. This encampment has been there for five or six months and hadn’t grown that much. We weren’t seeing reports of gun violence or escalatory violence that are sometimes true of rapidly-growing encampments.
This was on MnDOT property, and one day I happened to run into them on my way into work. I got to spend an entire day working with a host of social service providers with Hennepin County and the city to figure out what we could do for the residents that were there. Encampment evictions on average cost 120-130,000 dollars. For seven people, we should be able to reasonably figure out where they should go.
Over that day, I learned that all but one of them was in the process of securing a permanent home. When we displaced those folks, their social worker no longer had a way of getting in touch with them. We prolonged the process for them to get a forever home. Councilmember Chavez and I have been working on this issue for the past year or so. We passed a legislative directive late last year that was presented on by the Frey administration that showed the massive cost of these encampment evictions.
In the past four years, the city has spent somewhere between 5.5 - 7.5 million dollars on encampment evictions alone. I think we need to do something different. Councilmember Chavez and I are working with our colleagues and attorneys on passing policy that creates a comprehensive response to homelessness. That means ensuring public health in our encampments, having a really clear process around how and why and when an eviction can happen.
SWV: What would you change about the city’s public safety policies as they exist today?
AC: We should level-set first and say that most policies related to police are outside the purview of the council. Those are solely in the executive branch’s lane.
Beyond that, I think we have a really important document that’s been negotiated between the city and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that details a bunch of really important reforms and changes we are obligated to make. I think that’s going to be really important in changing the way that residents in the city experience safety and experience policing.
One of the most important things we see coming out of that is this independent oversight in the form of the monitoring and independent enforcement in the form of the courts that will force us to get in compliance with the consent decree. I think that’s really important.
On top of that, independent oversight is something our police department needs in the long-term and medium-term. There’s a campaign right now to establish independent oversight and community control of the Minneapolis Police Department. We’ll know in a couple of short weeks whether they’ve reached the signature threshold to get on the ballot. I think that’s an important change we need to see in the city.
We also need to be investing in alternative violence programs within the public safety system. The Behavioral Crisis Response team is an example of a really successful pilot. The city said they were getting all these 911 calls that are about mental health by nature, and we should have mental health responders take those on. Our former Office of Performance Management, now Department of Performance Management and Innovation, worked to identify what those calls were. They studied, and tested, and launched, and scaled this BCR team. It’s been wildly popular and successful because we’re having the most qualified responder answering each 911 call. It’s safer for residents when we have the appropriate responder taking a 911 call.
That’s an example of one pilot program that’s been successful. It took the city years before they invested in it and piloted it. Thank goodness for the persistence of our Department of Performance Management and that entire team for seeing their work’s importance and value and push it along. Councilmember Elliot Payne worked on that project and talks about how hard it was to push it through the city enterprise.
We also know that one-in-five 911 calls are ones that state statute allows for us to have a non-police officer respond to them. I’ll tell you why that distinction is important. I am a domestic violence survivor. I will tell you that a police officer is the wrong person to respond to a domestic violence call. State law disagrees with me. Unfortunately, we aren’t capturing those calls in the one-in-five number. We’re counting a series of phone calls coming in that don’t require a police officer to respond to them.
We need to create a lot more programs, which includes testing and piloting, so that one day we could make them successful like the BCR team. But if we aren’t investing in teams like that today, they won’t exist in three years from now.
SWV: The legislature is poised to make a pretty substantial investment in transit in the city. How would you like to see that money prioritized?
AC: I think we need to invest in people-centered infrastructure. I think we need more dedicated transit in Minneapolis in the form of transit lines and more reliable transit. A concern of a lot of my constituents that are transit-dependent is the cutting of service across the Twin Cities. That’s making it really difficult for folks to get to work, school, or other obligations. Increasing reliability is a really critical part of this.
We need to also be investing in things like efforts that reduce traffic-related deaths in our city. We just got a new report on the Vision Zero plan for the city, which is aimed at reducing traffic-related deaths in our city. There are a lot of different components that go into it. Everything from the 4-3 conversion on Lyndale to traffic circles to bump outs to additional stop signs and speed bumps. These are infrastructure investments that help people walk or bike or take transit and get around safely in our community.
SWV: How would you rate the job that the Public Works department is doing right now?
AC: [Laughter]. I think the vast majority of the people in the department, like the people that plow our streets or fill out potholes, the day-to-day frontline workers in Public Works are doing a great job. They are doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
They’re also the people that live in our communities. They are union workers. These things that go wrong are not their fault. We should also be making that distinction when we talk about the failures of Public Works. The people who are carrying out their work day-to-day are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. It’s really important that we say that.
I think things like the last-minute changes to the Hennepin Avenue plan last year, or the last-minute changes to the Bryant Avenue layout, or the ineffective ways we handled snow removal this year, or street maintenance with the number of potholes that any person could tell you created terrible conditions on our streets, those all point to a problem within City Hall.
When we have sidewalks that aren’t cleared and someone slips and falls and have to take time off work, and may not have great health insurance, that creates a major liveability concern for city residents. If someone is elderly and they cannot navigate their community for half the year, that’s a problem. When we have potholes on every single street in our city, and people’s cars are breaking down as a result, and they’re having to pay hundreds of dollars to get them fixed, that’s a problem. Publicly owned vehicles like buses can’t navigate our streets.
We can’t blame all of that on a historic snowfall. Certainly that has a role. But we need to do better. This administration needs to do better. These day-to-day services people rely on, and that they pay taxes for, meet the quality that residents deserve. That’s not happening right now.
SWV: How do you think Uptown is doing?
AC: Uptown… My gosh. Uptown is doing ok. I feel like the most meaningful conversation I ever had that truly prepared me for the last couple of years around Uptown came when I was campaigning. I knocked on this woman’s door two blocks away from the Uptown commercial corridor.
She told me that she had lived her whole life there, and not to worry because this is what Uptown does, it goes through these ups and downs. There are years when it’s the coolest place in town. There are years where it’s struggling. She told me to remember that my job was to get through the tough times and back to the ones where Uptown is the place everyone wants to be. That was very kind and helpful advice.
I think there are things we are struggling with. I think gun violence is something our entire city and community is struggling with. That’s certainly true in Uptown. We’ve also seen some really large businesses like Apple leave Uptown.
I think it’s important to also remember all the good things that are happening in Uptown. There are a lot of exciting news businesses coming into the area. Whether it’s the Hilltribe pop-ups, the Green Room, which has gotten a ton of really good press, Uptown Boludo, seeing all of these businesses become neighborhood establishments despite opening very recently has been great. The Uptown Theater is going to open soon and bring a lot of people to the area.
It’s important to hold that things are difficult in the city, and Uptown isn’t immune to that. There are also positive signs that tell us that the commercial corridor is coming back.