Mitra Jalali Nelson: Labor endorsed in St. Paul’s Ward 4

Mitra Jalali Nelson thanks delegates to the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation for their support.

Renters outnumber homeowners in St. Paul, but there are no renters on the city council. That’s something Mitra Jalali Nelson is out to change.

Nelson, the labor-endorsed candidate in a special election Aug. 14 to fill St. Paul’s Ward 4 seat, has drawn on her experience as a renter to craft a “blueprint” of policy proposals aimed at making housing in St. Paul more affordable, like zoning rules that allow development of more rental stock and programs that support aspiring homeowners.

Nelson is thinking big. And as a former union organizer and current aide to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, she has firsthand experience turning big ideas into reality.

The self-described “organizer at heart” knows it takes teamwork to make meaningful change.

“I look forward to working hand-in-hand with workers, unions and partners citywide to address income inequality head-on, and achieve citywide progress that brings all of us with it,” Nelson said.

‘The rent won’t wait’

Nelson has positioned herself as a champion of affordable housing from the start of her bid for City Hall. She won labor’s backing, meanwhile, by connecting the dots between her top issue and the things St. Paul unions fight for every day – good jobs, quality public services and strong public schools.

Affordable housing, Nelson said, is “key to ending income inequality” and, in St. Paul, a “crisis” that demands urgent attention.

Recent data from the Census Bureau backs up her claim. It shows 51 percent of renters are in “cost-burdened” situations, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Too often, Nelson said, the amount is closer to half.

“When people spend most of their income on housing, they’re forced to buy fewer groceries, skip a doctor’s appointment, forego school supplies and spend less in St. Paul businesses,” she said. “Foregoing action on this issue is holding our city back.”

A leading contributor to St. Paul’s affordable housing crisis? Rents are going up faster than working people’s wages. Over the last 25 years, median rents have increased by 9 percent, when adjusted for inflation, while median household incomes have fallen by 3 percent.

Backers of a $15 minimum wage ordinance in St. Paul have printed shirts with their rallying cry: “15 Now because the rent won’t wait.” Nelson said she supports $15 “without any exemptions.”

“I support passing one fair wage for our city and will work with community partners toward a $15 minimum wage citywide without any exemptions,” she said. “As the costs of living rise, our wages have been stagnant, and we need to take significant action locally to address this.”

But the city can also do more to make rental housing more affordable, she said.

“We need to act on our affordable housing crisis, using tools at the city level like inclusionary zoning and upzoning to help create more affordable units throughout the Ward and our city,” Nelson said. “We also need help from the county and state, and I will advocate for and seek additional resources to support the construction of more affordable housing, including public housing.

“As a renter, I am running to organize a coalition of renters and homeowners alike to achieve progress on this issue.”

Unions impressed

Barb Herrington-Hall, who retired this summer after 33 years as an educator, participated in the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ screening process in Ward 4. She came away impressed with Nelson’s vision, energy and grasp of the issues facing St. Paul.

Nelson’s passion for affordable housing struck a chord with Herrington-Hall, whose job involved making house calls to families in the district to screen children for special education services.

“I’ve been in apartments that the number of people living there, the quality of the housing, it would break your heart,” Herrington-Hall, a Ward 4 resident, said. “And it’s parents who have to work multiple jobs just to pay the rent.

“As educators, we know these parents aren’t able to come to meetings at conference time or help their child with homework. So I see the difference it would make if parents only had to work one full-time job.”

Herrington-Hall also knows Nelson does more than talk about supporting union members.

“The first time I met her she was participating in a rally in front of the school board building to support our bargaining team,” Herrington-Hall said. “Mitra was there in the crowd before she was ever endorsed, standing out in the cold with the rest of us.”

On the web

• Learn more about Nelson’s campaign at

• View a list of labor-endorsed candidates on the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation’s website.

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