Many cities have anti-crime laws. The DOJ says one in Minnesota harmed people with mental illness

US Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
Anoka City Hall is pictured Saturday in Anoka, Minn. Hundreds of U.S. communities have enacted “crime-free” laws that encourage and allow landlords to evict tenants after repeated calls to police or for emergency services. Proponents say the laws help reduce crime, but the U.S. Department of Justice last year found that the Minneapolis suburb used its ordinance to illegally discriminate against people with mental illnesses.
Abbie Parr | AP

The Minneapolis suburb of Anoka sits where Minnesota’s meandering 150-mile Rum River ambles into the mighty Mississippi. Like other communities, it touts itself as an agreeably placid place to live.

But last year, a federal investigation found Anoka illegally discriminated against residents with mental health disabilities, saying the city gave landlords weekly reports over five years revealing personal medical information of renters who received multiple emergency calls to their homes.

In at least 780 cases, the city also shared details about mental health crises and even how people had tried to kill themselves, all under the guise of enforcing an ordinance designed to deter crime and eliminate public nuisances, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Laws like Anoka’s, one of hundreds enacted across the U.S. since the 1990s, have long drawn criticism for unfairly targeting poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. Now they are under scrutiny as sources of mental health discrimination.

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“It’s horrific,” said Elizabeth Sauer, an attorney for Central Minnesota Legal Services, which serves low-income people. “Can you imagine having the most intimate details of your life just broadcast to every landlord in the city you live in?”

US Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
A water tower is pictured Saturday in Anoka, Minn.
Abbie Parr | AP

An ambiguous and ‘pretty aggressive’ law

Anoka’s “crime-free” ordinance was enacted in 2016 and, at the time, City Council members said they were fighting crime and making neighborhoods safer. Jeff Weaver, who still sits on the council and did not respond to requests for comment, described the problem then as “some dirtbag landlords.”

“It’s like a cancer on these neighborhoods,” he said at the 2016 meeting shown in an online video.

Reported crimes in Anoka dropped by 57 percent from 2016 through 2022, according to FBI statistics, though crime rates were falling before then. The city’s annual financial reports show that by 2022, police had seven full-time employees, 16 percent of its staffing, on the team enforcing the ordinance.

Among other things, Anoka's ordinance requires landlords to screen potential tenants, respond to resident complaints and attend a course on property management. It allows the city to suspend a landlord’s rental license if police answer four or more “nuisance” calls in a year. Before that, a landlord can be fined up to $500.

The ordinance says a nuisance call involves “disorderly conduct,” such as criminal activity and acts jeopardizing others. It also covers “unfounded calls to police” and allowing a “physically offensive condition,” but doesn’t define those further, allowing for wide discretion.

According to the DOJ, Anoka used that discretion to give landlords details about the adults and children involved in emergency calls, their diagnoses, medications and names of individuals' medical and psychiatric providers.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Minnesota chapter, called Anoka’s ordinance “pretty aggressive” and said if a tenant suffered a heart attack or other medical emergency, first responders aren't likely to say the tenant sought services “one too many times.”

“Why would we do it when somebody has a mental health issue?” she said.

Minnesota has had a psychiatric hospital in Anoka for more than 100 years. Anoka Metro Area Treatment Center is its largest hospital, with 110 beds.

Federal fair housing laws bar landlords from asking whether someone has a disability, including a mental health disability, or refusing to rent to them on that basis. Minnesota law meanwhile prohibits landlords from limiting or preventing calls for emergency services and also preempts local ordinances penalizing landlords over such calls.

But many crime-free ordinances, like Anoka’s, direct landlords to screen rental applicants, sometimes by the same officials who decide whether emergency calls will count against them or a tenant.

Following its investigation, the DOJ directed Anoka to revise its ordinance and exclude all medical or disability-related information for individuals from its reports, something the city is working on. Public records show city council members met last month in executive session with Scott Baumgartner, the city’s private attorney, to discuss a “draft remediation agreement,” but provided no further details.

Baumgartner confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that the city is “discussing a resolution” with the DOJ, but said he was unable to discuss it further "prior to its final resolution.”

Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
This photo taken Friday shows pages from a letter sent from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Minneapolis suburb of Anoka, Minn. The letter, sent Nov. 7, 2023, details the department's conclusions that the city's enforcement of an ordinance meant to control crime by pressuring landlords to evict troublesome tenants discriminates against people with mental health disabilities.
John Hanna | AP

An issue across the country

Anoka’s ordinance and the backlash are neither unique nor new.

In recent years, communities in California, Ohio and elsewhere have faced — and settled — federal lawsuits related to their “nuisance” laws.

In Illinois, Tina Davies and her five school-aged grandsons were evicted from their Peoria home in 2015. At the time, Davies’ oldest grandson was on probation for vandalism and often stayed out late. Davies, following instructions from his probation officer, reported to police if he wasn’t home. She later learned the calls ran afoul of Peoria’s nuisance ordinance.

The HOPE Fair Housing Center later cited Davies’ case in a lawsuit against Peoria, alleging her family was wrongly accused of fighting and having loud parties. Davies believes the city decided that, because her grandson was in trouble at school, he was the source of any problem on their block.

“You make it hard for anybody who is struggling and trying to keep things going — you know, trying to keep the kids under control and making sure they go to school and they’re minding their manners,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m trying to give him stability, and this is the thanks I get?”

Critical studies, including a 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union, further show enforcement of “no crime” laws is often most vigorous in poor and heavily minority areas. Other lawsuits, including one brought by the DOJ against Hesperia, California, also indicate some communities enact such laws after an influx of new residents of color.

Lawsuits also have argued such ordinances hurt victims of domestic violence by penalizing them for calling police or other help, even in life-threatening situations.

While the DOJ’s investigation didn’t disclose identifying information about the individuals whose information was shared by Anoka with landlords, 2023 U.S. Census data indicates that roughly 20 percent of its population are people of color.

Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
Jose Cruz Guzman, a resident of a United Renters for Justice apartment building, poses for a photo Dec. 18, 2023, in Minneapolis.
Abbie Parr | AP

A move to rethink and repeal

In response to growing criticism, many cities and states are rethinking such policies.

Last year, Maryland prohibited landlords from evicting tenants over the number of emergency calls to their addresses, as well as prohibited cities and counties from penalizing landlords for emergency calls. A California law that took effect Jan. 1 greatly limits cities’ use of such ordinances and advocates expect a push for similar legislation in Illinois and Minnesota.

While proponents of such ordinances argue they protect people who live in fear, critics say rethinking them is necessary to stem cycles of homelessness that many with mental illness face.

“Policing doesn’t make them safer or better, and then you add to this, this threat to destabilize their housing, to displace them from their family,” said Kate Walz, assistant litigation director for the National Housing Law Project, a fair housing and tenants rights group.

Housing advocates instead point to tenant unions and tenant-run housing cooperatives as ways to mitigate the issues nuisance laws are intended to target.

Jose Cruz Guzman, who serves on the board of Minneapolis’ Sky Without Limits Cooperative, said emergency calls to an apartment would prompt support from fellow residents.

“Because the relationship between neighbors is so much better ... if there’s a problem, I can go in and talk to the neighbor,” he said, speaking in Spanish through a translator.

This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.