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Ed Settevig, forerunner to the Minneapolis landlord activists of the 1990s

Edward Settevig, Minnesota director of the National Home and Property Owners Foundation (1946)

 

Edward Settevig and Frank Trisko, whose initiative helped found the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, both lived at one time in a house at 1907 Dupont Avenue South in the Kenwood area of Minneapolis. Trisko bought this house and other properties from Settevig. The two men had something else in common: Both were major figures in the struggle of property owners against the city of Minneapolis.

Settevig’s fight was, if anything, even more prominent than that of the later group, whose activities were largely ignored by the media. For at least seven years, Settevig was president of an organization called the Minneapolis Property Owners Association. Then he became Minnesota state director of the National Home and Property Owners Foundation whose national president, Arthur W. Binns, was a large home builder in Philadelphia and a first cousin of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover.

Edward Settevig grew up in Cooperstown, North Dakota, the son of Norwegian immigrants. By the age of 26, he had earned a small fortune in real estate, automobile sales, and financing. He came to Minneapolis in 1933 as a small businessman interested in defeating tax proposals of the North Dakota governor, William Langer, but liked the area so much he spent the rent of his life here. Forced into the restaurant business because of a loan gone sour, Settevig retreated from this as fast as he could and, instead, began buying multi-unit rental housing for low-income city residents which, he said, yielded “a moderately good income”.

The heyday of Settevig’s political activities was in 1946 and 1947 when he was state director of the National Home and Property Owners Foundation. Rent control was a big issue then. War-time price controls were then being ended, with rents the last area being changed. The government proposed to maintain rent controls, offering to allow property owners to raise rents by ten to fifteen percent in a year. The property owners pushed for complete elimination of rent controls.

Settevig and his associates argued that such controls suppressed the supply of badly needed housing. He pointed out that some property owners were taking their buildings off the market rather than submit to continued price controls. There were, he said, an estimated 175,000 vacant units in Minneapolis at that time. If rent controls were eliminated, those units would quickly be put back into service.

Ed Settevig and his associates also opposed public housing and slum-clearance (or urban renewal) programs sponsored by city and state governments. They considered this an encroachment upon the free-enterprise system. With rhetoric surprisingly reminiscent of present-day political conservatives, Settevig saw “communistic” influence behind such projects. He said: “We know that communists, bureaucrats, OPA and tax-fed bureaucrats have united to destroy private enterprise and perpetuate themselves in office ... These forces have bungled, ham-strung, and heckled free enterprise. Then they say that free enterprise has failed and government must do the job.” The issue was “Private ownership vs. Public Housing”, he said.

In the fall of 1946, Settevig worked hard to build a grassroots organization of property owners in Minneapolis. Annual dues for the National Home and Property Owners Foundation were $2.00. On October 10th, he gave a speech at the Minneapolis Athletic Club to Minneapolis contractors, loan firms, mortgage bankers, and taxpayers outlining his plans. If his new group could organize 5 million of the 27 million property owners in the United States, it could become an effective lobby to counter the Public Housing advocates, labor unions, and coops that wanted to replace private enterprise. Although Settevig was a Republican, “one third of our trustees are Democrats, though not New Dealers,” he said. “The foundation has the ability to unite the proprietary interests of the Democratic south with those of the Republican north.”

Like the Minneapolis landlords of the late 1990s, Settevig’s group became a thorn in the side of the city administration, then led by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey. The property owners aroused Humphrey’s ire by opposing a city-charter amendment that would have allowed the city to receive $100 million to $150 million in federal housing subsidies over five years. Mayor Humphrey called the property owners led by Settevig “a predatory band” which selfishly opposed construction of housing for returning veterans. With respect to rent controls, the mayor said: “If rent controls had been removed, we would have had mass evictions in Minneapolis but the Property Owners Association has no concern for the lives of people.”

Settevig charged that Humphrey’s program would turn the city into a builder of houses and an owner of rental property. All this would undermine the free-enterprise system. The city was proposing a new rent-control and eviction-delaying ordinance which would have extended to 90 days from 30 the period required to evict tenants.

Settevig made a radio address attacking the mayor. He accused Humphrey of playing politics in light of the fact that there were 25 tenants for every landlord. “The mayor has publicly stated our group is a predatory bunch, selfish and greedy, “ Settevig said. “We are less profit hungry than any group you can name.” The oratorial dueling between Settevig and Humphrey aroused such public interest that an alderman arranged for a loud speaker to broadcast discussions taking place in the City Council chambers to an overflow audience in the mayor’s reception room.

Charter Amendment Number Eleven was the main item of contention on the ballot in November 1946. This amendment, first of its kind in the nation, would have authorized the city of Minneapolis to share federal funds for slum clearance and creation of public housing for low-income persons. It needed the support of sixty percent of city voters to pass. Most unions, a large developer, veterans groups, and some churches supported the amendment. The principal opponents were the Property Owners Association (led by Settevig), the Taxpayers Association, and the Hennepin County Republicans, according to the Minneapolis Tribune. Amendment Eleven fell 500 votes short of the number of votes needed to pass.

Besides opposing World War II era price controls and socialistic designs on the housing industry, Settevig’s group opposed the transfer of the Wold-Chamberlain airport to the Metropolitan Airports Commission. It was also highly critical of the Minneapolis school system, which was then seeking a $2 million increase in tax revenues through an increase in the mill rate. Settevig charged that the school board income in 1945 had increased to an all-time high at a time of declining enrollment. Most of the increased school revenues went toward higher salaries rather improvements in the education of students. Settevig’s group published the names and salary amounts for a number of school administrators. Former Minneapolis school superintendent, N.B. Schoonmaker who had been ousted from his position, was a member of the group.

In a speech given to property owners in Madison, Wisconsin in late November 1946, Settevig charged that “over half of our educational system is contaminated by Communist influences.” His organization would “prevent state socialism from depriving Americans of their constitutional rights.” Settevig was concerned about the increasing tax burden placed upon the owners of private property while the co-ops (today called non-profits), which did $50 million worth of business in the housing industry, paid almost no taxes. He attacked public housing as “a sham-battle between land purchasing, loot, construction, politics and choice of tenants.” There was, he said, “no difference between Communism and Socialism ... Liberalism is merely an agent of the pink government bureaucracies which are now holding our beloved Uncle Sam in a death grip.”

Again, such attitudes put Settevig in collision with the Minneapolis mayor, Hubert H. Humphrey. In a speech given to the Probus club, the mayor said: “Public education is no longer a local matter but is one of general welfare and national defense; therefore it is imperative that schools receive aid from the federal and state governments”, though policy control should be maintained locally. Humphrey pointed out that England was spending twice as much per-capita on education, and Russia five times as much.

In the fight to change the city charter, mayor Humphrey pulled out his oratorial skills to attack opponents in a speech given at the Minneapolis armory. According to a newspaper account, “Mayor Humphrey drew applause and laughter at some of the quips with which he embroidered his talk in support of the proposed new city charter. The mayor listed the opposition to the charter as consisting mainly of 24 aldermen, the Taxpayers’ association, and Edward Settevig and the Property Owners’ association. ‘Friends, you can have that company; I don’t want it; it’s too slick for me,’ he said.” Slick, indeed. However, Humphrey’s side lost that battle.

On January 15, 1947, following the 1946 elections favoring the Republicans, the national president of the National Home and Property Owners Foundation. Arthur W. Binns, came to Minnesota to give a speech to a session of the Northwest Lumberman’s convention at the Minneapolis municipal auditorium. The Philadelphia businessman’s visit generated much publicity. He warned of “a state socialism which will end up by controlling every action of life from the cradle to the grave ... Yes, we are fighting for property because property in private hands and home ownership are the best guarantee that (our) precious freedoms will not be lost.” Continued rent controls were a particular threat to liberty, Binns later told a group of St. Paul realtors. Numerous housing units remained vacant in the Twin Cities because of the controls. “Second only perhaps to the atomic bomb, in interest before the nation is the question of the supply of housing for rent.”

Another issue with which the property owners dealt was a proposal for a one percent city income tax. Settevig objected particularly to the fact that the proposed tax exempted corporate income and its revenues “would go to pay higher salaries to already high paid school employes.” This city tax, he said, would have the effect of driving more people to the suburbs. During the previous decade, the city of Minneapolis had shown a gain of 5 percent in population while the surrounding suburbs had grown by 285 percent.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, a supporter of the proposed tax, went so far as to attack the Property Owners Association in an editorial on May 24, 1947: “The declaration of the Minneapolis Property Owners association against the tax seems to make the duty of good citizens clear. That duty is to vote for the 1 percent tax. For the Minneapolis Property Owners association has not been right about any major civic issue in so long that there can be no better guide to human infallibility, in this fallible world, than to be for whatever it is against.”

A subtle shift had taken place in the discussion of housing issues. The city’s newspaper was no longer an objective reporter of events but an active participant - against Settevig - in the discussion. As a result, the Property Owners association was forced to put out its own publication to allow the public to hear its side of the story. This full-scale monthly publication was called “The Property Owner”.

In the fight over the school tax, a handbill produced by Settevig charged that “our people are appalled by the lack of school information available to the voters due to the dominant control of information by the Iowa-Cowles monopoly trust which gives out people only that propaganda suiting their program and which will perpetuate their controls.” Elsewhere, he wrote that Minneapolis was becoming a ONE-MAN NEWSPAPER CITY. The Star Journal, the Times and the Morning Tribune are owned and controlled by the Cowles financial interests from Des Moines, Iowa. What news you get for what propaganda you read, is what the ‘out of town Cowles interest’ decided to give you in these papers.”

The Cowles-owned newspaper in Minneapolis had formed alliances with liberal politicians who favored greater government involvement in housing and other areas. Ed Settevig, once influential in city politics, became marginalized. When Hubert Humphrey became a candidate for U.S. Senate in 1948, Settevig charged that he had made “a dismal failure” of the city’s business. He said that the failure of the October school amendment to pass showed the voters’ “lack of confidence” in the mayor. The city’s emergency housing consisted of “disgraceful slums”. Settevig said that “Humphrey is for government ownership of business, socialized medicine, and ‘a high sales or payroll tax on labor.’ Such a tax ... would exempt his (Humphrey’s) creator, the Cowles newspaper monopoly, large industries, banks, etc. so they could be spared from fear of other taxes which might be levied upon them.”

It was not just the Democrats and Humphrey whom Settevig attacked. Newly elected Republican governor, Luther W. Youngdahl also came in for criticism when he supported authorizing municipal governments to accept federal aid for public housing and state rent control. Later, when former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen became a candidate for President, Settevig wrote that “he (Stassen) has more tenacles than an octopus, as he is in philosophy part communist, part socialist, part labor, part capital, part republican, a great part New Deal, and 100% international and possesses a strange deep sympathy for Russia. He never misses an opportunity to make a headline.” Settevig favored the reelection of conservative Republican Senator Hendrik Shipstead over what he called “Stassen-Ball-Thye Co., Ltd.” However, Senator Shipstead lost in the 1946 Republican primary to the Stassen-supported candidate, Edward Thye, who went on to win the general election.

Federal rent controls ended in February 1948 although such controls continued in many localities for an extended period of time. Hubert Humphrey went on to deliver a stirring speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention and then to be elected for several terms to the United States Senate and finally Vice President of the United States. He failed in his 1968 bid, as the Democratic nominee, to be elected President. The political career of Harold Stassen, a Republican Presidential candidate, peaked in 1948 as he lost the Republican nomination to Thomas E. Dewey.

The paper trail of Ed Settevig’s political activism ends in the late 1940s insofar as I am able to tell. The above information has been taken from Settevig’s own scrap book of newspaper clippings from that period, later given to Frank Trisko. Trisko has given this book and other materials to William McGaughey, who has, in turn, given the material to the Minnesota Historical Society. Settevig’s experience and perspective fill a gap in our understanding of how the rental-housing industry developed in Minneapolis. It was a forerunner to what the landlords under Charles Disney’s leadership experienced in the late 1990s.

In later years, Ed Settevig became a major benefactor of the Minneapolis Shriners. A wing of the Shriner facility at 26th and Park Avenue South was named after him. He also renovated a railroad car and converted it into a summer cabin near Coon Lake. Settevig died in 2000. His daughter Darcy currently lives in Montana.

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