On Oct. 11, I returned home from work to discover a bright-orange eviction notice plastered on my front door. My housemates and I were perplexed: We pay our rent on time, keep our house in good condition and have a great relationship with our landlord. Yet this laminated piece of paper informed us that we had to vacate our home by Dec. 1.
My household is not exactly ordinary. My six housemates and I are full-time volunteers working at nonprofits throughout the city. Our landlord is a church. We are members of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, committed to living in an intentional, sustainable community for one year.
Our home, named Winona House, has been a presence in the Ventura Village neighborhood of south Minneapolis for 17 years. In that time, more than 100 volunteers have lived there to work for peace and social justice. Now I am told that my community will be the last here; we will likely be split apart and relocated into different houses.
The reason for our eviction? Overoccupancy. Due to an absurdly restrictive zoning ordinance, no more than three unrelated adults may inhabit our six-bedroom house. Minneapolis Ordinance 546.50 states that a house zoned as R2 “shall not exceed one family plus up to two unrelated persons living together as a permanent household.”
We’ve repeatedly been told that this ordinance is for our protection, that it prevents exploitative landlords from creating crammed boardinghouses. While I agree with this goal, my housemates and I feel anything but victimized by Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. We live a good life, filled with supportive relationships. Our house cooks nightly dinners together; we buy our supplies communally; have hymn sings, and deliver cookies to our neighbors. Bizarrely, we resemble the idealized American family, and we are far from dissatisfied with our housing. Yet for some skewed reason, the law “protects” us by shattering our community.
It doesn’t take a mastermind logician to find fault with an ordinance that protects tenants from landlords by making them homeless.
The residents of Winona House found this ordinance so ludicrous that we couldn’t take it seriously at first. We naively assumed that anyone with common sense would recognize the exceptionality of our community and exempt us from the eviction. Clearly, the spirit of the law does not apply in our case, and so we thought the city would speedily grant us a variance so that we might at least finish our year of service as an intact community.
Yet at every turn in the process, we’ve run into red tape and gatekeepers preventing us from even getting time during the zoning board’s meetings so that we might argue our case. Our community members and supporters have written 50 letters supporting our appeal, yet we have no hearing in which to present them. While we were originally granted an extension until Jan. 1, all signs are now pointing to a future in which the Winona community will cease to exist.
At its heart, the bureaucratic nightmare of the zoning variance process is a social-justice issue, and I am angered that this same problem could befall another unwitting group of renters. And what if they aren’t lucky enough to be predominantly white, middle-class, educated young adults with an entire organization willing to provide alternative housing?
Not only does this ordinance penalize anyone wishing to live in communal housing, it victimizes anyone unable to navigate the bureaucracy required to file a variance. The people meant to be protected by the ordinance, those who are under-resourced, become the ones most likely to find themselves without a home.
As for the residents of Winona House, we plan to fight this eviction until the bitter end. My hope is that our story might testify against a bureaucracy that inadvertently harms the people it aims to protect. The implementation of common-sense zoning laws and eviction processes must become a priority.
Let’s make Winona House residents Minneapolis’s last renters to fight an unwarranted, unjust eviction.
Dan Perucco lives in Minneapolis.