Census 2020: Minn. cities move to make sure renters get counted

BlueStone Lofts
BlueStone Lofts is an apartment complex that was built across from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2013. State officials say renters are the most under-counted group in Minnesota. And those residents could make the difference in determining whether the state holds on to an eighth Congressional seat.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file 2014

Nearly a quarter of all Minnesotans — about 1.3 million people — are renters. The rate is even higher in Duluth, where about 40 percent of households live in rental units.

Many of those renters live in secured buildings, where visitors need to be let in.

Janet Kennedy knows that firsthand. She was elected to the Duluth City Council in November, and she spent a lot of time knocking on doors while she was running for office.

“When I ran and was campaigning, it was really hard to get into a lot of those apartments,” she said. “And so even though, as a candidate, we were legally able to go in there, there were still rules and even feelings of safety, with ... unknown people, coming into those communities.”

This week, Kennedy and her colleagues on the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance aimed at making sure census workers don't encounter those same problems.

Households across the country are beginning to receive postcards in the mail detailing how to respond to the 2020 U.S. census. And the U.S. Census Bureau is hiring up to a half-million workers nationwide to visit people who don't fill out the survey online, over the phone or return it by mail. They're the last line of defense to try to make sure everyone is counted.

Experts say renters are more likely to be missed than homeowners, for several reasons: They move more often than homeowners. And renters are also more likely to be members of groups that historically have been under-counted in the census.

"Communities who have been historically under-counted are young people, people of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous people,” said Duluth community relations officer Alicia Kozlowski.

In Duluth, 71 percent of the city's households of color are renters.

Ensuring access

According to 2018 census data, just about half of Minnesota’s population of renters — nearly 700,000 people — live in multi-unit dwellings. And many of those buildings increasingly have secured access.

As a result, the Minnesota state demographer's office has pushed for cities to pass ordinances similar to Duluth's. A handful, including Edina, Plymouth and Brooklyn Park, have taken the step, and others are considering it.

State Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, has also introduced a bill at the Legislature that would require property managers statewide to give census workers access to multi-unit dwellings.

"An under-count of even a few thousand people can turn into a loss of millions of dollars and political representation at the local, state and national levels," which would mean a loss of political power, he said.

The results of the decennial census are used to determine how and where federal funds are allocated. They also determine how many Congressional seats Minnesota gets.

After the 2010 census, Minnesota retained its eighth seat by just 8,739 people, said Andrew Virden, Director of Census Operations and Engagement for the state of Minnesota.

The U.S. Census bureau estimates about 1.1 percent of all renters were missed in the 2010 census. If that holds true again, that means about 15,000 renters could be missed in Minnesota in the new census.

Doing a better job counting renters, Virden said, “could be the difference of whether we keep our eighth seat or not.”

Coordinating with property owners

Virden believes ordinances like Duluth’s will improve the count. He notes that federal law already requires property owners to allow census takers into their buildings.

"However, the Census Bureau is not a law enforcement agency, and so that is rarely enforced,” he said.

Duluth officials say they will now be able to issue citations to property owners who don't allow census workers into buildings, or even refuse to renew a license.

But that's only a last resort. Instead, Alicia Kozlowski said, census workers will be asked to contact property managers ahead of time to schedule visits.

"The nice thing about this is that it actually helps tenants and property owners in addition to census workers, because ... people have legitimate reasons to feel apprehensive about people [who don’t live there] coming into their buildings," she said.

Making sure census workers can get into apartment buildings is just one of many steps that state and local officials and other groups are taking to try to make sure that every Minnesota resident is counted this year.

For Felipe Illescas, legislative director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, the work is personal. He said just this week, he had to convince an aunt and uncle that it's safe to fill out the census form.

"We need to make sure that we have an official count of how many Latinos live in Minnesota,” he said. “We are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country, and also in Minnesota, but we need to show that. Just because we have anecdotal information doesn’t mean that it’s actually official."

And the process to make those numbers official, officially starts this week, when the U.S. Census Bureau began to send information to millions of American households.

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