MINNESOTA: Federal lawsuit alleges that Faribault targeted Somalis with housing restrictions


Thursday June 14, 2018
By John Reinan 


In a letter, a lawyer representing the city vigorously denied the allegations, calling them “unsubstantiated, inaccurate and contrary to law.”

A woman walked across Central Avenue on a cold morning Wednesday in Faribault, Minn. Star Tribune

Concerns about an influx
of immigrants in Faribault, Minn., prompted the city to pass a rental
housing law aimed at driving Somalis and other black residents out of
town, the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a lawsuit filed
Wednesday.

Six
Faribault residents, along with Somali Community Resettlement Services,
allege in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court that the city’s
rental licensing ordinance is unconstitutional and “aimed at reducing
the number of people of color living in rental housing within its
borders.”

The suit was filed by lawyers for the national ACLU and its Minnesota branch.

In a
letter to ACLU officials, a lawyer representing the city vigorously
denied the allegations, calling them “unsubstantiated, inaccurate and
contrary to law,” adding that demands to repeal the rental housing law
were a “strong arm tactic.”

Faribault
City Administrator Tim Murray said Wednesday that the city hadn’t had a
chance to review the complaint and will consult with its lawyers before
replying.

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The rental
licensing law, passed in 2014 and revised last year, requires landlords
to get a rental license from the city. To get and keep the license,
landlords must take part in the city’s Crime Free Housing Program.

According
to the lawsuit, that program allows the city to evict renters if any
member of the household or a guest engages in what police deem to be
criminal activity, even if no arrest is made or charge filed. That means
renters could be evicted, for example, if neighbors call police with
complaints of excessive noise.

“It puts tremendous power in the hands of neighbors,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU in Minnesota.

One of the
named black plaintiffs in the suit, Thelma Jones, was harassed by white
neighbors “who would call the police about really petty things,” Nelson
said.

Jones was
forced to move in 2016 after repeated calls to the police by white
neighbors about such things as family barbecues and children playing on a
trampoline in the yard, according to court documents. She was never
convicted of a crime, the lawsuit said.

“The City
of Faribault labeled Ms. Jones and her family as problem tenants not as a
result of confirmed criminal activity on her property, but as a result
of harassing calls to the police from her white neighbors,” according to
the lawsuit.

The rental
housing law and the Crime Free Housing Program coincide with
demographic changes Faribault has seen in recent years, the suit
alleges. In 2000, the city’s population was 2.7 percent black, according
to U.S. Census figures. By 2016, nearly 10 percent of Faribault
residents were black.

The suit
alleges that city officials became concerned after receiving complaints
from residents about groups of Somalis congregating on downtown streets
and sidewalks. According to the suit, one City Council member said in a
local TV interview that Faribault needed to attract more high-income
people “or we are going to flip like Detroit in a few years.”

Another
part of the rental law limits the number of residents to twice the
number of bedrooms, plus one, the suit said. That means no more than
five people could rent a two-bedroom home or apartment.

The suit
claims that clause unfairly targets Somali families, who tend to have
larger families than average Minnesotans. Several Somali plaintiffs in
the lawsuit were evicted from their rental homes when the birth of a new
baby put them over the limit, according to court documents.

The city
maintains that its housing law applies to all residents, no matter their
race or nationality, according to the letter sent to the ACLU on behalf
of the city from Robert Alsop, a Minneapolis attorney.

Alsop called claims of discrimination “deficient and unfounded.”

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