Minnesota City’s Ordinance Illegally Targets People of Color in Rental Housing

Faribault, Minnesota, is a small city about an hour’s drive from Minneapolis. It has a landmarked, historic downtown and a wool mill that’s been in operation since 1865. But in the 21st century, Faribault is changing.  

In 2000, Black people made up less than 3 percent of Faribault’s population. By 2016, Faribault was more than 9 percent Black. Faribault’s growing Somali community has been the source of much of this shift. By 2016, there were 10 times more people of Somali ancestry in Faribault than there had been in 2000. But non-immigrant Black Minnesotans are discovering Faribault — with its good employment opportunities and low cost of living — too.

Our client Thelma Jones is one of them. Thelma moved to Faribault 10 years ago because it seemed like a safe and peaceful environment to raise her family.  She worked hard as a home health aide and certified nursing assistant, and in Faribault, she was eventually able to move to a house big enough for her three teenage kids and the younger children she was raising. It also had a yard for birthday parties and barbecues.

Thelma and her daughter

But Thelma and her family got evicted from their home because of Faribault’s Rental Licensing Ordinance and its so-called Crime Free Housing Program, which we and the ACLU of Minnesota are challenging today in federal court. Harassing calls to the police from Thelma’s white neighbors had brought the police to her home many times, like when her kids were jumping on the trampoline or when a group of Black teenagers was standing in her yard.

One neighbor even told Thelma to her face that Thelma should “go back where she came from.” In response, the police labelled Thelma and her family “problem tenants.” They threatened Thelma’s landlord with criminal prosecution under the ordinance unless she kicked Thelma and her family out. In a matter of months, Thelma’s family lost their home.

So, what is this ordinance? As the demographics of Faribault were changing, the city council passed a measure to give police more power over tenants in rental housing, ostensibly to contain crime and control “loitering.” Except there had been no rise in crime. And loitering was just called standing on the sidewalk before it was people with Black skin doing it. The ordinance was a discriminatory solution to problems that did not exist.

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And it’s no coincidence, given its discriminatory purpose, that the ordinance targets rental housing. Ninety percent of Faribault’s Black residents rent their homes, as compared to just 28 percentof white residents. Around the country, as people of color are increasingly moving to the suburbs, we’ve seen a spate of these ordinances targeting renters for extra policing and extra scrutiny. Renters, disproportionately people of color, are stereotyped as likely to commit crime.     

Faribault’s so-called “Crime-Free Housing Program” follows a model for policing rental housing created by the Arizona-based International Crime Free Association, which is used in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country. The program requires landlords to include language in every lease making any instance of “criminal activity,” defined very broadly, a justification for evicting the tenant. In Faribault, police can tell landlords to evict a household because they suspect someone in it engaged in even minor criminal activity, even if the person is not prosecuted and even if they are found not guilty in a criminal case. This gives police tremendous power over tenants’ lives.

The program also requires landlords to perform criminal records screening on potential tenants  and instructs landlords to refuse to rent to them on the basis of criminal convictions, even for minor crimes. Given the radical racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this kind of blanket policy also amounts to racial discrimination, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Savannah, Georgia, had a similar program, and when we pointed out its illegality there, Savannah immediately suspended the program. We hope Faribault will do the same.

Local governments should embrace diversity as a sign and a source of strength — especially when new arrivals are doing the jobs that fuel the local economy. But they certainly can’t put up barriers to keep people of color out. Both the Constitution and the Fair Housing Act make Faribault’s ordinance illegal, and we’ll keep fighting until Thelma and her family have the same opportunity as everyone else to live in Faribault.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

This is probably an extension of President Trump's P.B. 'n J. Policy.

Kevin Fields

No, sadly this predates Trump's rise to political office.

Joanne M. New ...

Almost the same thing here in New Jersey. My fiancé has a PAST criminal record. His daughter (only child) just moved into Harvest Point Apts. in Salem NJ. There is security like a prison and he is NOT allowed to visit because of his past conviction. How can THIS be legal? He just wants to VISIT his grandbabies and daughter in their new home. Not looking to move in. I have tried to contact EVERYONE. Governor Phil Murphy, local news, every office possible. How is an apartment complex even ALLOWED to look up a visitors past criminal history. I feel they are really overstepping their boundaries and breaking the law. He did his time in the 90's.

Anonymous

This is one of the mechanisms of systemic racism. White people self-righteously call the police to report Black people living their lives. The police come out and label the Black people "problems." The city passes a law aimed at eliminating "problems." Voila! None of the actors in this scenario see themselves as part of a white supremacist system, but they should consider it. It has nothing to do with whether they are consciously committed white supremacists. Their actions enforce white supremacy with or without their consent.

Kim

Thank you for shedding light on this blatant racism! I hope you win this and any other case fitting this criteria in the future!

Anonymous

Buy a house instead, the amount you pay for a mortgage is generally cheaper than the amount you would pay for rent and then your landlord is you. If you have a job and your credit is not terrible you can get a mortgage, there are so many low income mortgages available and so many first time home buyer programs.

Anonymous

There is discrimination in that process as well.

Anonymous

There are numerous advantages to renting and buying. Each family can and should think through that choice carefully. If they have the privilege. There are many hurdles to home ownership that make rental the only option.

Anonymous

A city like this would most definitely have plans in place to (secretly) deny mortgages to POC. Some thatve been challenged in court involve extra hidden fees (that most homeowners don’t pay), requests for paperwork and documentation ad infinitum that stall the approval of even a standard mortgage, let alone an FHA loan. If a mortgage is stalled for weeks or months, where would this family live? Right where they are now. And they’d STILL have the same problems they’re encountering now!

Anonymous

There are so many aspects of humans that I despise. Racism is #1. Cruelty is #2.

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