Faribault sued for housing discrimination

The city of Faribault is facing an ACLU lawsuit over its "Crime-Free Multi-Housing" ordinance.

ACLU lawyers filed the complaint in District Court Wednesday morning.

"At its core, the city of Faribault has an ordinance which we believe was targeted at renters of color," said Minnesota ACLU legal director Teresa Nelson. "It's forcing them out of the city, and it accomplishes that in a number of ways."

According to the complaint, the ordinance requires landlords to use specific language in their lease agreements, allowing police officers to order evictions if tenants are even accused of a crime.

The city also places strict limits on how many people can live in each rental unit, and requires landlords to run a criminal background check on potential tenants.

The complaint argues that since "black Minnesotans are vastly more likely to have a criminal record than are white Minnesotans ... [and] Somali families tend to be large ... this restriction has a significant and unjustified discriminatory effect."

Thelma Jones is one of six individual plaintiffs on the lawsuit. Until the fall of 2016, she lived in a five-bedroom rental home with her four children and a handful of grandchildren. She said it was a nice place. There was a trampoline in the backyard, and enough room to host big family barbecues.

The problem was, during many of these family barbecues, her neighbors called in noise complaints.

"It was very embarrassing to have all the cop cars show up," she said, "just because there were a bunch of black people in my yard."

No serious charges came of these calls, but Jones said the Faribault police ordered her landlord to evict her. The "Crime-Free Housing" ordinance allowed them to do it, and since it also put strict limits on apartment occupancy, she had a hard time finding a new place to live.

"We had to split up the family," she said. "I couldn't find a big enough place."

Two of her children moved out of town. Now Jones lives in a small apartment with just two of her children. There's no place to have family gatherings. Last Easter, she had to rent a room at the community center just so everyone could see each other.

Nelson hopes the court will declare the housing ordinance unconstitutional, and rule on some "appropriate relief" for people who have lost their homes.

In a letter to the ACLU, attorneys for the city blasts the civil rights group's arguments as "unsubstantiated," "inaccurate," "contrary to law," "deficient," and "unfounded."

The letter says the ordinance was adopted as a "legitimate police power of the city," to regulate rental housing.

"Since its enactment in 2014, the city has used the provisions of the ordinance as a means of improving living conditions in scores of residential rental units throughout the city as well as significantly reducing incidents of crime throughout the city, both of which are directly correlated to the express purpose of the ordinance."

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