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.

Learn more about the case

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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Tom Johnson

Racial discrimination is WRONG and illegal. The city needs to correct this and the entire city staff and elected officials need diversity training.

Tom Johnson

Racial discrimination is WRONG and illegal. The city needs to correct this and the entire city staff and elected officials need diversity training.

Anonymous

Timothy Leary is dead! And this is the reason why people are afraid to say anything!

Anonymous

There's much more to this story than ACLU is putting out.

Bonebag

No! There is not! Case in point! Pascagoula used this trick, until Moss Point got an all Black police department! White lady called, Black lady called! White cops showed up, Black cops showed up! White man evicted Black lady! Black city eminently domaines his property! No more evictions! White lady moves back to Pascagouls!

Paul Peña

Not surprised surprised....

Terry

I live in this town and I’m not surprised to hear any of this. There’s a significant white population that doesn’t like our Somali residents at all and conservatives tend to win our local elections. Thanks for taking this on.

Anonymous

There are no jobs in faribault and you can't have 15 people in a 2 bedroom apt. The Somali community has drained and ruined a once up and coming city. People are leaving because of the Somalia people they are rude feel entitled and stink. So until you live here you don't know shit.

Anonymous

So you are confirming there is racism in the city then. Noted

Anonymous

Consider some faribault facts. 1 because of the Somalia community pork of any kind is no longer available for school lunches, my grade school daughter has to take a basic Somali language course, they think they are entitled, they leave public restrooms a gross mess, the husbands love separate from their wives and their wives collect assistance, I have witnessed them western union money back to Somali knowing they don't have jobs it's our tax dollars. They crowd the down town side walks making it almost impossible to shop,. Stop a social services they all have new cars new cell phones, and all the government assistance they can milk. I hope they are forced to move they become locusts in our town. They only take! They came here to be free so why force their beliefs on us. They left for a reason why drag it here. One husband one wife one family one America

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