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St. Paul rent control measure on Nov. 2 ballot brings out hopes, fears on all sides

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St. Paul rent control measure on Nov. 2 ballot brings out hopes, fears on all sides

Bahieh Hartshorn recalls spending her first year or two out of college taking out payday loans to help make rent.

Hartshorn even relocated to find cheaper digs, and as a housing advocate, she’s heard heartbreaking stories from low-income tenants — many of them Spanish-speaking immigrants — who saw their monthly rents go up by hundreds of dollars when their building ownership changed hands.

With those experiences in mind, Hartshorn — a renter and board chair of the West Side Community Organization — plans to vote “yes” on a ballot initiative in November that would cap residential rents in St. Paul at 3 percent annually. “People feel it in the gut how much they need that stability,” she said.

Jason George is urging the members of his trade union to vote “no” on the same ballot question. St. Paul already tends to lag Minneapolis in terms of new housing construction, and he worries housing investors will avoid funding new projects in the city.

“If this ordinance passes, there will be fewer affordable-housing developments, for sure,” said George, business manager with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, which operates construction cranes and other heavy machinery. “Future developments are sources of city revenue. That’s how they pay for plowing the roads and fixing the streets, which are also things our trades do.”

‘RENT STABILIZATION’ MEASURE ON NOV. 2 BALLOT

In St. Paul, a renter-majority city, the “rent stabilization” ballot question has split housing advocates and forced soul-searching among elected officials who have long committed to keeping stable housing accessible to everyday families.

Pointing to a possible slowdown on housing investment, four of the seven St. Paul City Council members have publicly opposed the ballot initiative, as have most of the mayoral candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey recently vetoed one of two rent-control-related ballot questions in his city.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Tuesday said he would vote “yes,” though he also expressed concern about the impact on new construction and said changes to the ordinance will be needed down the line.

“I am voting ‘yes’ for rent stabilization, not because the policy is flawless as drafted — we can and must make it better, quickly — but because it’s a start,” Carter said, in an announcement posted to social media.

UNLIKE ST. PAUL’S PROPOSAL, OTHER CITIES EXEMPT NEW CONSTRUCTION

Rent limits can be organized in many ways. That’s fed a pointed debate across the Twin Cities. In his recently published book “The Affordable City,” urban planner Shane Phillips makes the case for anti-gouging laws that protect residential tenants from double-digit rent increases. He’s supportive of “rent control,” but a certain kind of rent control.

“There are vanishingly few reasons why a landlord should need to raise a person’s rent by more than 10 percent in any given year,” writes Phillips, who manages the Lewis Center Housing Initiative at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Phillips, however, takes a dim view of any “rent control” or “rent stabilization” policy imposed on new housing, at least within the first 15 or 20 years of construction. Developers need a financial incentive to build new units, and landlords need time to fill up those units and recoup their investment, he writes, especially during an economic downtown. Otherwise, a lack of construction helps no one.

“If they’re forced to lease new units at a loss for the first few years … they may as well declare bankruptcy on opening day,” he writes. “Developers will understandably avoid cities where this is a possibility, and supply will stagnate. This is why rent stabilization doesn’t apply to new housing virtually anywhere in the world.”

Depending upon whom you ask, his writings form a rationale or an indictment of the ballot proposal that will be presented to St. Paul voters next month, as well as a similar effort that will have to pass through a few more steps in Minneapolis.

A 3 PERCENT ANNUAL CAP

In both cities, housing advocates have proposed capping annual rent increases at 3 percent, and the new limit would apply regardless of whether the apartments are owned by big developers or small mom-and-pop operators, or old or new construction. If a tenant moves out, the unit would still be subject to the same cap on rent increases.

Critics are calling St. Paul’s proposed “rent stabilization” ordinance the most restrictive in the country, if not the free world. Proponents say the proposal is overdue against the backdrop of rising rent prices that have proven to be recession-proof and pandemic-proof.

Concerned about the possible negative impact on housing construction, the state’s two largest unions associated with homebuilding — the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 — have joined a political action committee urging residents to vote “no” on the question.

Other members of the Sensible Housing Ballot Committee include the St. Paul Area Chamber, the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors, the Minneapolis Area Realtors, the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

“Yes, indeed there is a housing affordability problem that we’re facing. It’s a real problem. But this is the wrong solution,” said committee chair Cecil Smith, president of the Multi Housing Association, in an interview.

Smith called the proposed ordinance “the strictest, most draconian rent control that anyone has ever seen in our country, if not the world. There’s no exceptions for new development or for small property owners and single-family homes. … We want voters to think twice about that and understand what they’re really voting on. Let’s turn our attention to solutions.”

‘KEEP ST. PAUL HOME’ CAMPAIGN

Advocates with rent-stabilization proponents “Keep St. Paul Home,” however, say a flat 3 percent cap on rent increases actually fixes problems that have emerged in other cities that have imposed rent control. That includes New York City, where competition for housing remains high, and rents on new units and de-controlled properties no longer subject to the restrictions are among the highest anywhere.

“For the past 20 years, median rent has not increased more than 3 percent (annually),” said Tram Hoang, a campaign manager for the St. Paul ballot initiative. “That tells us 3 percent is enough. It’s generous. People have been able to keep up with property taxes and maintenance, even amidst economic turbulence like the (2008) foreclosure crisis.”

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A tech whistleblower helps others speak out

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A tech whistleblower helps others speak out

By Erin Woo, The New York Times Company

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill to expand protections for people who speak up about discrimination in the workplace.

A new website arrived to offer tech workers advice on how to come forward about mistreatment by their employers.

And Apple responded to a shareholder proposal that asked it to assess how it used confidentiality agreements in employee harassment and discrimination cases.

The disparate developments had one thing — or, rather, a person — in common: Ifeoma Ozoma.

Since last year, Ozoma, 29, a former employee of Pinterest, Facebook and Google, has emerged as a central figure among tech whistleblowers. A Yale-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she has supported and mentored tech workers who needed help speaking out, pushed for more legal protections for those employees and urged tech companies and their shareholders to change their whistleblower policies.

She helped inspire and pass the new California law, the Silenced No More Act, which prohibits companies from using nondisclosure agreements to squelch workers who speak up against discrimination in any form. Ozoma also released a website, The Tech Worker Handbook, which provides information on whether and how workers should blow the whistle.

“It’s really sad to me that we still have such a lack of accountability within the tech industry that individuals have to do it” by speaking up, Ozoma said in an interview.

Her efforts — which have alienated at least one ally along the way — are increasingly in the spotlight as restive tech employees take more action against their employers. Last month, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed that she had leaked thousands of internal documents about the social network’s harms. (Facebook has since renamed itself Meta.) Apple also recently faced employee unrest, with many workers voicing concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.

Ozoma is now focused on directly pushing tech companies to stop using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out about workplace discrimination. She has also met with activists and organizations that want to pass legislation similar to the Silenced No More Act elsewhere. And she is constantly in touch with other activist tech workers, including those who have organized against Google and Apple.

Much of Ozoma’s work stems from experience. In June 2020, she and a colleague, Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly accused their former employer, the virtual pinboard maker Pinterest, of racism and sexism. Pinterest initially denied the allegations but later apologized for its workplace culture. Its workers staged a walkout, and a former executive sued the company over gender discrimination.

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The best tech gifts that aren’t gadgets

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The best tech gifts that aren’t gadgets

By Brian X. Chen, The New York Times Company

My favorite holiday tech gift doesn’t require batteries or software updates. It’s not even a gadget, though it was made with technology.

Can you guess what it is?

A few years ago, my wife experimented with her iPad and a digital stylus to make digital illustrations. Using Procreate, a drawing app, she loaded a photo of our beloved corgi, Max, as a reference to trace over before embellishing the image with a polka-dot bow tie and a cartoonishly long tongue. I liked it so much that I picked a background color that would complement our home and uploaded the illustration to the app Keepsake, a printing service that assembles your images in a nice frame before delivering it to your door.

A large, framed portrait of Max now hangs as a centerpiece in our living room in all its two-dimensional glory. It makes me smile and is always a conversation starter when we have guests over. That’s more than I can say about other tech gifts that I’ve received over the years, such as video games and smart speakers, which only brought short-lived joy.

(Mary Lam via The New York Times

An image supplied by Mary Lam. Supply-chain disruptions may make it tough to buy devices, but the most thoughtful presents were never tangible to begin with.

This type of gifting exercise — tech-adjacent presents that don’t involve hardware or thoughtless Best Buy gift cards — may be especially welcome this year. That’s because we are living in a pandemic-induced era of scarcity driven by a global chip shortage and supply chain disruptions that have made conventional gifts difficult to buy. (Anyone trying to buy a game console for the last year understands this pain.)

So here’s a list of ideas for tech gifts we can give without actually buying tech, from the presents you can create to experiences that will last a lifetime.

The gift of fixing

Last week, I told a friend I had a special present for her: I would fix her iPhone problem.

She had complained to me about her 5-year-old iPhone SE. The device could no longer take photos or install software updates because nearly all of the device’s data storage was used up.

So before she left for her Thanksgiving vacation, I met her for lunch and walked her through the process of backing up photos to an external drive before purging all the images from the device. Then I plugged her phone into a computer to back up all her data before installing the new operating system.

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Leadville, Northglenn brewer files for bankruptcy after business goes flat

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Leadville, Northglenn brewer files for bankruptcy after business goes flat

A little more than a year after Periodic Brewing shuttered its doors in Leadville and Northglenn, the brewery has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The company said in its Nov. 23 bankruptcy filing that it owes $1.4 million to a little more than 50 creditors and has assets worth $58,324.

Periodic opened in Leadville in 2015, and added a taproom and production facility in Northglenn in 2017. It closed them both in September 2020, announcing the news on social media but offering little insight into the reason why.

Chapter 7 bankruptcies are typically a liquidation process, in which a trustee is appointed to oversee a selloff of the debtor’s assets. The bankruptcy filing indicates that the brewery’s equipment has already been auctioned off by Lake and Adams counties, where Leadville and Northglenn are located.

Chris Labbe was the founder of Periodic Brewing, which launched in 2015.

“We owed a lot of money,” founder Chris Labbe told BusinessDen Tuesday. “There’s really no way around it. There’s only one path at this point to protect all the owners and make sure all the results of auctions are distributed correctly to those debtors.”

Throughout its five years of operation, Periodic served more than 300,000 pints of beer and produced more than 100,000 cans and bottles, according to Labbe. In its filing, the brewery said it had revenue of $784,998 in 2019 and $364,213 in 2020 prior to its closure.

Prior to the pandemic, Labbe said 80 percent of Periodic’s revenue came from its taprooms and 20 percent came from distribution.

“I pushed the business hard in our distribution growth, and we were successful. But going into the pandemic, we were not in a strong financial position,” Labbe said.

While distribution was a lifesaver for some breweries when the pandemic hit, and taprooms had to largely close, Labbe said Periodic stopped distribution during the pandemic in an effort to conserve cash.

“We had expanded into nearly 100 distribution locations in the Denver area and were producing at record levels,” Labbe said. “All signs pointed to continued success in the first part of 2020, but then the lights went out. We scrambled as best we could to gather resources and materials to survive what was coming, but by early June and going into July, revenue in Leadville was close to zero during a period where we usually make a lot of money.”

“It cost a lot of money to prepare and stay on top of the distribution,” he added. “And when the taprooms were shut down, we lost almost $350,00 in revenue over that first summer. It was too much to try to recover from and continue to fight the fight as a family.”

In addition to declining revenue, Labbe said he struggled to find and afford employees to staff the taprooms. Despite having another full time job in the oil and gas industry, he was working at the brewery eight to 10 hours a day.

Periodic Brewing

Periodic Brewing produced more than 100,000 cans and bottles of beer during its five years in operation.

“We physically couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said. “By July, we were at rock bottom, and that led to our decision to close in September. We knew we’d have a hard time recovering from that without an extensive personal investment.”

Creditors include Labbe himself, owed $268,044 for loans to the company; Greenwood Village-based GVC Capital, owed $609,000 for expansion funding; and OnDeck Capital, a loan agency that’s filed a lawsuit against Periodic to collect the $31,622 it’s owed.

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