Crime, Law and Justice

DOJ lawsuit: City of Anoka discriminated against residents with mental health disabilities

The DOJ also filed a consent decree.

US Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
The Anoka City Hall is pictured on Feb. 3, in Anoka.
Abbie Parr | AP

The city of Anoka discriminated against individuals with mental health disabilities, discouraging tenants from making emergency service calls for fear of eviction, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice Tuesday.

The complaint alleges the city’s rental licensing and “crime free” housing ordinance violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act — and follows a Department of Justice investigation last year that suggested a lawsuit if a resolution was not reached. 

The DOJ also filed a proposed consent decree Tuesday, which would resolve the allegations if the city takes action, including adopting non-discrimination policies and paying $175,000 to compensate individuals harmed by the “crime free” ordinance.

Under city policy, tenants who are the subject of multiple “nuisance calls” can be evicted, and landlords are supposed to evict residents who make multiple calls for “unfounded reasons.” The complaint alleges the city considered some mental health 911 calls “nuisance calls” and pressured tenants with mental health disabilities from making future calls, as well as pressuring landlords to evict residents who made those calls.

“So-called ‘crime-free’ ordinances are often fueled by discriminatory objectives and have the effect of destabilizing communities and promoting fear intended to drive people from their homes,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

Clarke said rather than protect public safety, the policy discourages people with disabilities from calling for help when they need it.

According to the lawsuit, one unnamed complainant who is a landlord said the city pressured her to evict a resident with mental health disabilities who called 911 while experiencing delusions about people coming to harm her. Despite police officers knowing the resident’s calls were related to her disabilities, they allegedly repeatedly told both the landlord and tenant that additional calls would result in penalties, including fines.

Housing Discrimination Mental Illness
Pages from a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Minneapolis suburb of Anoka pictured on Feb. 2.
John Hanna | AP

Under city policy, landlords who don’t take steps to evict tenants who have violated the crime free ordinance could have their rental license revoked.

As a result, the tenant grew fearful of calling the police, the lawsuit says. In violation of the ADA and FHA, that tenant and others with mental health disabilities were denied equal housing opportunities and opportunity to benefit from Anoka’s emergency response service, the lawsuit alleges.

The DOJ investigation found that from 2018 through mid-2023, the city sent weekly reports to landlords detailing calls for emergency service that included tenants’ personal information. Almost 800 of those cases revealed information about individuals’ mental health diagnoses, medications and names of medical providers. Some of the reports included details of tenants’ suicide attempts. 

The DOJ claimed the city used those reports to “notify landlords of potential issues and encourage them to evict tenants,” yet often did not enforce the nuisance ordinance against those without mental health disabilities who repeatedly called 911 for “unfounded reasons.”

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

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 2023

“It’s not a nuisance if you’re becoming psychotic,” she said. “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.”

In the lawsuit, one unnamed complainant with a mental health disability and post-traumatic stress disorder called 911 twice because of mental health crises. Anoka’s calls for service reports included sensitive information about that tenant, including her plans to die by suicide and the name of her therapist. 

That tenant said she has since refrained from calling for emergency service while feeling suicidal, due to fears of how the information in those reports could impact her current and future housing prospects.

Representatives with the city of Anoka did not respond to requests for comment.

In a 10-page letter to Anoka last December, the DOJ urged the city to change its nuisance and “crime free” policies and procedures, designate an ADA coordinator, exclude medical and disability-related information from calls for service reports and train staff on ADA requirements. The consent decree also seeks those remediations.

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