St. Paul sued on housing enforcement

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2008 - 9:07 PM

An Eagan property manager alleges city leaders are trying to keep out poor tenants. An official says that's not happening.

An Eagan man and his property management company filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging that St. Paul city officials have systematically violated fair housing laws by trying to reduce the number of low-income rental units, which has had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and other minorities.

Robert McCampbell, 52, accused certain city officials of having a political agenda to reduce the number of poor tenants in the city, most of whom are minorities.

McCampbell charged in his 26-page lawsuit that city officials have used the building code enforcement system to illegally shut down apartments with minority tenants or to force the tenants to move out.

The suit alleges that Andy Dawkins, head of the city's Neighborhood Housing and Property Improvement Department from 2002 through 2005, made remarks that the "bottom tier of tenants should be eliminated from St. Paul." Other city officials have raised concerns about the concentration of poverty in St. Paul, the suit says.

After the complaint was related to him by a reporter, Dawkins said Friday that it apparently rehashes allegations made in previous lawsuits filed several years ago. "One of the things we tried to do was to hold landlords responsible for keeping properties up to code," he said. "I'm very confident that the city of St. Paul could only have liability if they treated tenants different because of their race, and that just didn't happen."

According to McCampbell, senior Fire Inspector Pat Fish, who headed the city's Problem Property Task Force, told him on at least two occasions in 2004 and 2005, "I don't know why you rent to these people." McCampbell said it was clear to him that Fish did not want him renting to low-income minority tenants.

Fish could not be reached Friday. St. Paul City Attorney John Choi had little to say, because the lawsuit was filed late in the day. "We will review it and respond accordingly," he said.

The lawsuit contrasts the way the city handled code violations at McCampbell's three apartment buildings with the way it allegedly handled similar issues in buildings owned by the St. Paul Public Housing Agency.

McCampbell owns Raven Property Management. The company owned properties at 780 Jackson St., 615-617 Case Av. and 1015 York Av., a 17-unit building. The lawsuit focuses mostly on repeated building inspections and condemnation orders on the York Avenue property that allegedly drove up costs, drove out tenants and eventually broke the business.

By contrast, the suit says, the Public Housing Agency (PHA) residences are "exempt from interior inspections" and are subject to minimal code enforcement. The suit alleges that the city's license and inspection office has consistently failed to conduct permit inspections on PHA homes, jeopardizing the tenants and their neighbors. Yet it alleges that the city targets private landlords who rent to similar tenants, "jeopardizing their rental businesses and disrupting the lives of their tenants."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for a variety of civil rights violations and state violations of contract and business interference.

Staff writer Chris Havens contributed to this report. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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