Lawsuit claims unequal housing code enforcement hurts Minneapolis renters of color

A woman sits on the front steps of a house
Arianna Anderson, a renter and advocate with United Renters For Justice (Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia), says being a stay-at-home mom at her home in Crystal, Minn., pictured Friday, has given her the time to help advocate for housing cases.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Arianna Anderson remembers one of the first times she called Minneapolis’ 311 line to report possible lead in her north Minneapolis home. It was 2018. 

A city inspector came over and tested one wall. 

“And he was like, ‘yeah, there’s no lead,’” she said. 

The city inspector then said he’d show her what lead looks like and led the way to the home’s mud room.

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“He was like, ‘you see this paint how it’s chipping.’ He was like ‘this is how lead paint chips and chips in more like rectangles. And this has lead paint,’” Anderson recalled.

Still, she said he took no action.

She said she thought to herself, “well, if he’s not concerned, maybe it’s no big deal.”

Anderson said her words sound “ignorant” now, but that’s how she felt.

“I trusted him as the professional to protect my family,” she said.

Later tests proved she, her partner and their five children were all exposed to lead.

“The whole idea of the system is to prevent things like this from happening. And that’s not happening in north Minneapolis at a large scale, where you can just literally, you can see the line where the neglect happens in Minneapolis,” said Anderson, who is now a volunteer with the housing advocacy organization United Renters for Justice.  

Anderson is one of 10 plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis, alleging the city has failed to adequately enforce housing code violations in their neighborhoods. They claim the city responds to complaint calls in predominantly white neighborhoods with more efficiency than they do in predominantly Black neighborhoods in north Minneapolis. 

The suit alleges breach of duty to enforce Minneapolis Housing Code. It was also filed under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing and public services.

A woman looks out the window of a house
Arianna Anderson helps advocate for her own housing case against the city, which involved her family of seven and two cats (including Usagi), as well as on behalf of other north Minneapolis residents.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In an email statement to MPR News, the city said it is “still reviewing the complaint, but denies that it discriminates against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) renters.”

The statement also said, “the City works cooperatively with landlords to try to remedy issues on rental properties in order to protect tenants, minimize the loss of low income rental housing, and avoid displacing residents.”

Ben Kappelman, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney, is the lead lawyer on the case and says his clients say otherwise.

“The plaintiffs that we represent, have decided that enough is enough,” he said. “They have seen a consistent pattern of under enforcement of the housing code by the city and that is unacceptable.”

According to the complaint, from Jan. 2018 to March 2023, north Minneapolis Wards 4 and 5 had 4,600 rental property complaints from about 67,500 people. During the same time period, Wards 11, 12 and 13 in south Minneapolis had 495 complaints from 96,800 residents. The northside wards had nine times the number of complaints.

“And yet the city chooses to assign housing inspectors on a roughly even basis, which means they’re not putting the resources where they’re needed,” Kappelman said.

Twenty-eight percent of occupied housing units in Ward 4 are rentals, the complaint said. Of those rentals, 77 percent are BIPOC households. In Ward 5, 55 percent of occupied housing units are rentals and of those, 70 percent are BIPOC households.

“These renters often lack the power and resources to address the deplorable housing conditions,” states the lawsuit. “Landlords capitalize on this imbalance of power to avoid remedying the many issues with the properties they own.”

The suit cited the revocation of one landlord’s rental license after thousands of violations — 3,000 of which were issued in the last decade before his license was revoked. The example, the lawsuit states, “provides further credence to the problem but also reflects an enforcement regime that waits far too long to take action.”

Kappelman also claimed the city may have marked cases as resolved when they really weren't. Kappelman says the plaintiffs want the court to determine that there’s racial discrimination in how the city enforces the housing code.

The lawsuit asks the court to order that be stopped and it asks the city to “assign its resources in a racially equitable manner and enforce the housing code in a way that stops these problems in north Minneapolis,” he said.

Plaintiff Shanika Henderson is a housing organizer with United Renters for Justice. 

Until 2022, she spent eight years in a home which she says was riddled with code violations. She said the home had a cracked foundation which allowed water to stream into the house especially when snow was melting,. That led to property damage and mold, she added.

Henderson said the city cited her landlord for work that needed to be done, like when her inside porch started to cave in and face the street. She says her landlord didn't face consequences from the city. 

“That didn’t get fixed,” she said.

Henderson is now in a renovated home on the northside with a modern kitchen and a sound foundation. She still is with the same landlord. Her old house, she says, was never rented again.

Henderson hopes the lawsuit will lead to more city action when it comes to landlords' failures.

“They need to be able to hold them accountable,” Henderson said. That way “families can maybe step out and live in a more livable space.”