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Landlords' suit against St. Paul over 'problem properties' going to trial

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The city of St. Paul announced Friday it will drop its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and go to trial against a group of landlords that sued the city over its aggressive housing code enforcement. 

The case involves 16 current and former landlords, who owned more than 100 St. Paul rental units when the case was initially filed about eight years ago. The case will go to trial in Federal Court later this year.

They claim the city's 2002 crackdown on so-called "problem properties" had a disparate impact on minority groups. The landlords argue that violated the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act.

The city asked the Supreme Court to rule that the Fair Housing Act sets a higher standard, requiring plaintiffs to show policies were intentionally discriminatory. But the city today dropped its appeal, citing concerns that might set a precedent making it harder for people across the country to file civil rights lawsuits.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the city's housing code doesn't hurt tenants — it's designed to help them.

"To say that people of color, children, don't have the same rights to be protected from rats, to be protected from unsafe living conditions, is such an absurd argument to me," Coleman said. "I can't even imagine how anyone could put that forward."

In the early 2000s, the city passed ordinances making it easier to revoke a landlord's license to rent. It also stepped up inspections and enforcement at buildings with large numbers of code violations, calls for police service and complaints from the neighbors.

Randy Kelly, who was mayor of St. Paul at the time, said "St. Paul has long worked to improve the responsiveness and the accountability of property owners in our neighborhood. But we need to at this point refine our ordinances and put more tools in the code-enforcers hands."

That upset some of the landlords who owned those properties. Matt Engel is one of the lawyers representing them, and he says the city was "heavy handed."

"You know, they could probably show up at my house and say, 'OK, you need new shingles, you need new paint over here, and you need new paint over here, and you need to take this out, and you need to put this in, and you need a new furnace, and you need to do this," Engel said, "and it would be like, 'Who's this guy standing here telling me I need to do all this type of stuff?"

St. Paul's emphasized code enforcement limited the availability of affordable housing in the city, Engel said.

"It's not going to be perfect," Engel said. "There's going to be some small things, and it's not going to be a Woodbury quality property, but I meant that's the reality of what affordable housing is."

The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. St. Paul's lawyers argued it's not enough for the landlords to say minority residents were over-represented in the so-called "problem properties." They claimed the landlords should have to prove St. Paul intentionally disciminated against its non-white residents.

Today, St. Paul dropped that argument. Coleman says he was worried the Supreme Court might take that position too far. If the court were to rule that all civil rights lawsuits needed to prove intentional discrimination, it would have wide-ranging effects.

"The question was how far would the Supreme Court reach in agreeing with the city of St. Paul's position," Coleman said. "And if they reached so far as to wipe out the disparate impacts standard under the Fair Housing Act, we think that it would do substantial damage to the interests of the city and of cities around America."

Those concerns were shared by several civil rights organizations and the attorneys general for about a dozen states. They filed briefs urging the Supreme Court not to weaken the Fair Housing Act.

Now that St. Paul has dropped its appeal, the case is free to move forward. But deep factual disagreements remain between the city and landlords over how bad the problems were at the properties.