In Minneapolis' tight housing market, does tenant screening go too far?

People hold signs as they stand on steps behind a man at a podium.
Supporters of a proposed ordinance restricting landlords' use of credit, criminal and eviction records to screen tenants gathered outside Minneapolis City Hall last week.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

In Minneapolis, there’s a roaring debate over landlord screening of would-be tenants. Proposed restrictions on criminal background checks and security deposits are pitting landlords against some tenants and their supporters on the City Council.

If you have a criminal past, a spotty credit history, or a record of evictions, you'll struggle to find an apartment — especially in today's tight housing market. Many landlords tell rental applicants that such black marks may, or definitely will, be grounds for rejection.

But the city of Minneapolis is considering an ordinance that would curtail landlords’ ability to screen tenants. That's stirring up much debate about what's fair for both landlords and renters.

Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans have poor credit, a criminal past or some sort of a history of rental evictions. Philip Holmes is one of them.

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"I would like to ask landlords, 'Where are all these people supposed to go?’ And if we don't allow people to have a decent place to stay,” he said, “what does that say about us as a whole, as a society?”

The 65-year-old Vietnam vet has a long criminal record, mostly for financial fraud, he said. But he's also got a domestic assault on his record and did five years in prison for possession of a firearm.

He said he was kicked out of a Minneapolis apartment after the new owner ran criminal background checks on tenants. As he hunted for a new place, Holmes said he was rejected 80 times before he found a sympathetic property manager.

“Judge me just based on my presence, not what happened 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “I'm not that guy any more. So, all I ask is for a second chance.”

Amy Gonyea decided Holmes deserved a chance. She's general manager of Sela Investments, which has about 1,700 apartments in the Twin Cities.

“We evaluated all the areas of his life and Philip's been a wonderful resident,” she said.

But Gonyea and her tenant differ on the wisdom of Minneapolis limiting landlords ability to turn down prospective tenants because of criminal, credit and eviction records.

Holmes, the tenant, thinks limits could help people unfairly trapped by their pasts.

But Gonyea believes the city has no business telling landlords how to choose tenants.

“It's not personal. It's business. You need to check the credit, the criminal, and the evictions because it ensures the safety for your building. It makes certain that you're not taking on a severe problem,” she said.

The checks aren’t foolproof. Over the years, Gonyea has had to evict tenants because they — or someone they let into their apartments — committed violent crimes.

Gonyea believes the draft tenant screening ordinances pushed by two City Council members would unnecessarily tie landlords' hands.

“I'm very uncomfortable with that, with the City Council being involved because I don't think they're educated in the rental housing market,” she said.

Jeremiah Ellison, one of the City Council members behind the draft ordinances, said they would provide a fair break for people trying to put past troubles behind them.

Jeremiah Ellison faces a woman with his arms crossed as they talk outside.
Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison (right) talked with supporters of a proposed ordinance restricting landlords' use of credit, criminal and eviction records to screen tenants during a rally outside City Hall on July 11.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

“This ordinance seeks to help folks who are ready to enter the market. Their only obstacles are blemishes on their record or a high financial threshold,” Ellison said. “But if not for that, they'd be in the marketplace. They'd be renting. They'd be able to have an apartment.”

Ellison said he wants to come up with a workable, reasonable ordinance. He said he's listening to renters and landlords and expects the City Council will address tenant screening by early fall.

The draft ordinances cover security deposits, as well as screening criteria. For instance, security deposits would be limited to one month's rent. In many cases, landlords would be barred from turning down tenants for felony convictions in which the sentencing date is more than five years in the past. But there would be exceptions for sex crimes and some other offenses.

The proposed ordinances have drawn strong opposition from the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords.

“The ordinances that have been put forth are not the right solutions for the problems at hand,” said Nichol Beckstrand, the association's president.

The landlords’ group argues the proposed laws would make buildings less safe, stifle new apartment construction and drive up rents.

Beckstrand said the city should consider other actions that could help people who struggle to find housing. Minneapolis should pilot test any restrictions before imposing them across the board, she said.

Landlord Cecil Smith said Minneapolis should focus on ratcheting up the supply of housing for the poor, ex-cons and other groups that struggle to find shelter.

“The real solution is more supply,” he said. “And the right kind of supply for what people need.”