DOJ alleges city of Anoka discriminated against tenants with mental health disabilities 

a woman works on her desk
Sue Abderholden, Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota looks through a DOJ report which alleges the city of Anoka discriminated against tenants with mental health disabilities.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finds the city of Anoka’s crime-free multi-housing program violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against tenants with mental health disabilities. 

In a 10-page letter to the city, the DOJ alleges the city discouraged tenants struggling with mental illness from seeking emergency help — even when their health and safety were at risk.

Under the crime-free housing program, tenants who are the subject of excessive “nuisance calls” are subject to eviction.

The DOJ found the city considered mental health 911 calls nuisance activity. 

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“It is not a nuisance if you’re feeling suicidal,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota.

“It’s not a nuisance if you’re becoming psychotic. It’s not a nuisance if you’re becoming severely depressed or anxious. These are mental health issues. And they shouldn’t be treated as a crime,” she said.

Abderholden says these types of policies and practices contradict statewide efforts to ensure stable housing, and they discourage people from calling for help even when calling could be the difference between life or death. 

MPR News has reached out to Anoka city officials for comment, but has not received any response. 

The DOJ also alleges the city notified landlords of potential nuisance calls and encouraged landlords to evict tenants who were the subject of the calls. Sometimes those communications included personal details about tenants’ mental illnesses.

The DOJ report reveals of the calls for service, many show the city often did not enforce its nuisance ordinance against individuals without mental health disabilities who engaged in similar activity as people with mental health disabilities. 

Abderholden had a very distinct reaction after reading the allegations in the report.

“I was livid. Actually, to think that someone is calling 911 Because they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. And then it comes back to basically discriminate against them in terms of their housing situation is just untenable,” Abderholden said.

In a statement, DOJ Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said using a so-called “crime-free” housing ordinance to invoke fear and prevent people with mental health disabilities from exercising their right to access housing and seek emergency assistance is discriminatory. Clarke called the city’s practices a “scheme cloaked as a public safety measure that targets people with disabilities.”

Larry McDonough is a senior fellow with the National Housing Law Project. He says crime-free ordinances have been around since the 90s and it’s not the first time a city violated state housing laws. The city of St. Louis Park had a similar ordinance until 2020.

“An investigation there showed that St. Louis Park was using their crime-free ordinance to pressure landlords to evict tenants three times as often as all the other Hennepin County suburbs combined,” McDonough said.

The city repealed the ordinance three years ago, after city officials found the policy disproportionately impacted low income renters and people of color.

“This is a way for people in the city to say, we don’t want these people here, but we're not going to use our criminal justice system to prosecute them. We’ll just force landlords to kick them over to another town and let the other town deal with it,” he said. 

McDonough says the consequences can be costly. He says tenants can take legal action and seek damages and penalties.

“I think the chief goal of any litigation would be to change the ordinance or change the enforcement,” he said.

Abderholden says there are efforts to make changes to existing bills, including the Residential Tenant’s Right to Seek Police and Emergency Assistance bill

Under the current bill, “a landlord may not bar or limit a residential tenant's right to call for police or emergency assistance in response to domestic abuse or any other conduct.” 

Abderholden says updated language to that bill would add, “including but not limited to mental health or health crises.” 

The DOJ provided minimum remedial measures necessary in its letter to the city. It’s asking the city to change its policies and procedures, designate an ADA coordinator, and train staff. 

The DOJ concluded if a resolution can’t be reached, the city may face a lawsuit.