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Newly elected council member to focus on renters and affordable housing

Posted on 10 September 2018 by Calvin

By STEPHANIE FOX
Mitra Jalali Nelson (photo right provided) has been an organizer for grassroots issues most of her adult life. Now, as the newly elected member of St. Paul’s City Council, she says she wants to start organizing from within the power structure. Nelson plans on focusing her efforts toward transit sustainability, police accountability, and finding ways to advance economic equity in the local economy.

But, at the top of her list is affordable housing.

Her diverse ethnic background—her parents are both immigrants, one from Korea and the other from Iran—has given Nelson unique insight, she says. Her family, who ran a small business, moved all around the Twin Cities.

After attending Mounds View High School, she expanded her horizons, moving to Madison for a degree in political science and then to post-Katrina New Orleans, working at a high school for two years with Teach for America. From there she returned home to St. Paul, becoming an organizer with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She joined Rep. Keith Ellison’s local office as his public safety and immigration outreach director, where she spent the last three years.

During the 2012 election, she worked to pass a $39 million annual St. Paul Public School funding levy, which, she says, helped her sharpen her negotiation skills, something she now hopes will serve her as a council member.

Nelson, now 32, didn’t grow up dreaming of a seat on the city council. But, when St. Paul Council Member Russ Stark resigned his office to work with newly elected Mayor Melvin Carter, and a special election was called in her Ward 4 neighborhood, Nelson decided that she could serve the public better as an elected official. Ward 4 includes Hamline Midway, Saint Anthony Park, Merriam Park and parts of Mac-Groveland and Como.

She started to campaign last winter and by spring was winning endorsements from unions and progressive organizations. She gained support from Mayor Carter and in April got the thumb’s up from the DFL at their April convention.

Samantha Henningson, Stark’s legislative aide, took over the seat when he left, but as part of her agreement to take the interim job, she pledged she would not run for the office.

Instead, three candidates—Nelson, Shirley Erstate, and David Martinez—were on the ballot and on Aug. 14, Nelson was elected with 54 percent of the vote. Erstad received 41 percent and Martinez, whose campaign was mired in controversy, received only 5 percent.

When she took office on Sept. 5, Nelson became the only renter on the Council. She says she hopes to include other renters as an important part of her constituency, with housing affordability as one of her key issues.

Nelson says that her supporters reflect the changing younger face of her district in St. Paul. “Renters make up more than 50 percent of the city,” she said. St. Paul has a large younger population, with a median age of only 31.7 years.

“I think the idea is that housing stability is important to community stability,” Nelson says. “I want to work for housing affordability. The city can be an important part of that. Zoning can be used to create more value. Preservation and new housing don’t have to be at odds.”

While she supports the construction of new, affordable mixed-income housing, she says that the city should also work to preserve older housing, including landlord programs to fund repairs to existing properties, keeping the cost of rents down.

But, while Nelson hopes to support younger and single people who are not ready to buy, she thinks that there are ways the city can help those ready to transition to home ownership.

“For those trying to buy a home for the first time, the city runs programs to help people with down payment assistance, responsible lease to own programs, and homeowner classes,” she said.

Nelson says that for existing homeowners, rising property taxes can sometimes become a problem. “We have to be thoughtful on property tax increases and how we spend our money. On a macro level, there is a group who pay no property taxes,” she said, mentioning St. Paul’s many hospitals, clinics, and parking areas. “The idea is if we can engage smart development in industrial and commercial areas, people won’t feel that they are picking up the bill. In the past, we have not developed our community. We have lost opportunities.”

“I think we need to make the best possible use of our land everywhere and can, across our city, meet the needs of our community,” she said. “I would like to see a mix of industrial and residential across our ward to sustain our tax base and meet our growing housing needs.”

Since the election was to fill a vacated seat, Nelson will have to run again in the general election next year, along with the other seven members of the council. If she wins, she will represent her district for four more years.

For now, Nelson is ready to get to work. “The special election was a whirlwind. But, I want to get to work right away. It’s exciting to live in our city, and I am excited to do this job differently. I want to attend community events, have forums and meet people. People want to get involved locally and I want to engage with them.”

 

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