MINNEAPOLIS — The American Civil Liberties Union sued a southern Minnesota city on Wednesday, alleging its rental licensing ordinance is unconstitutional and aims to drive black and Somali-American immigrant families out of town.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Faribault residents who were evicted or have been threatened with eviction, says the ordinance violates the Fair Housing Act and the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. It seeks a court order that would declare the ordinance unlawful and bar it from being enforced.
"To quell its discriminatory and misplaced fear of black people, especially Somali immigrants, the city enacted this ordinance aimed at pushing them out of the community," said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.
City administrator Tim Murray said Wednesday he hadn't yet seen the complaint. But in a June 11 letter to the ACLU, the city said the organization's claims were unfounded, and that the purpose of the ordinance was to improve safety and living conditions in rental properties.
The ALCU says the ordinance was enacted in 2014 as the city saw an influx of Somali-American residents. Other residents and businesses had raised concerns about increasing crime and loitering, but Police Chief Andy Bohlen said any public safety concerns were unfounded and a product of "fears and cultural clashes."
After the ordinance was adopted, one official in the predominantly white city of about 23,000 residents said it was successful in getting rid of "undesirable" people, the lawsuit said.
The ordinance requires landlords to be licensed with the city and use leases that allow police to order evictions of entire households if any member engages in criminal activity, even if no arrests have been made, according to the lawsuit. There's also a three-strikes policy for disorderly conduct complaints.
Landlords are required to conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants, which the ACLU says is discriminatory because black residents are more likely than whites to be arrested. The lawsuit says landlords must deny housing to anyone with a criminal record, though the city, in its June letter, said that isn't the case.
The ordinance also limits occupancy of a rented home to two residents per bedroom, plus one, with some exceptions for children under age 2. The ACLU said those limits force many Somali-Americans, who tend to have larger families, out of rental units as new children are born — and sometimes out of town because there are few large rental units available.
"When you look at the public record, I think it's pretty clear that this was motivated as a means of pushing out people of color," ACLU-Minnesota legal director Teresa Nelson said.
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, mostly concentrated in the Minneapolis area.
One plaintiff, a Somali-American mother, was ordered evicted shortly after giving birth because the new baby put her family over the limit. Another Somali family is considering sending two of its children, who are U.S. citizens, to Africa so the rest of the family can stay in Faribault, the lawsuit said.
The city contends the ordinance is consistent with requirements of the Fair Housing Act and reasonable occupancy limits have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nelson said that while other cities have similar ordinances, Faribault's policies are problematic because they're mandatory.
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