For years, Minneapolis encouraged landlords to evict tenants as a first resort when police are called to the property.

This aggressive approach by the Minneapolis Police Department to eliminating nuisance properties sometimes went beyond the bounds of the law, a city investigation showed. Victims of domestic violence have been kicked out of their homes after calling 911 for help. When tenants complained that a landlord had locked them out, police wrongly informed them that it’s a civil matter.

A report from the Office of Police Conduct Review and interviews with tenant lawyers reveal a shadow eviction practice that’s an end run around legal protections for tenants, conducted through secret messages to landlords and neighborhood leaders and intimidating “notice to vacate” letters from landlords to tenants.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said the report is “scandalous,” and has pledged to overhaul the 28-year-old “conduct on premises” ordinance that set out the rules for handling problem rental properties.

“It’s harming vulnerable renters and also it’s not addressing chronic criminal behavior,” said Cunningham, who has convened work groups involving 30 city staff and five community groups to revamp the code.

The police department suspended its enforcement of the ordinance two months ago and reassigned Luther Krueger, the crime prevention specialist who ran the program in recent years. Police did not make Krueger available for an interview.

Passed in 1990, when crack houses were a neighborhood menace, the conduct on premises ordinance was intended to force landlords to help shoulder the burden for law enforcement. The city trained landlords to use the threat of eviction as a primary tool of dealing with trouble. Offenses as minor as underage drinking could prompt the city, at the discretion of Krueger, to mail a notice of violation to the landlord. The landlord then had 10 days to respond with a plan to correct the problem. Often, the plan was simply to kick the renter out.

“The notices that get sent out to landlords as a result of some kind of criminal activity on the property can lead to a notice to vacate, which is a more subtle version of an eviction,” Imani Jaafar, the director of the Office of Police Conduct Review, said in a May presentation to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Enforcement of the ordinance has fallen most heavily on poor tenants of color, the investigation found. The city sent 478 notices of violation to rental properties in north Minneapolis between 2012 and 2016, primarily in the Jordan, Willard Hay, Folwell, Hawthorne, Webber-Camden, McKinley and Near North neighborhoods.

By contrast, the ordinance was applied only 16 times in that period in southwest Minneapolis.

Informal eviction crisis

Court-ordered evictions number more than 3,000 per year in Minneapolis, but the actual number of tenants removed from their homes outside the legal process is probably double that number, according to lawyers at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

The main way that happens is through “notices to vacate,” a threat to evict that many tenants comply with voluntarily because they don’t know their rights or want to avoid an eviction on their record, according to the report.

Those letters can be triggered by an e-mailed “action alert” from police about an arrest or a police call involving someone at the address. Some landlords have taken to sending a notice to vacate as soon as they get the action alert, which “fuels the informal eviction crisis,” said Georgina Santos, a lawyer with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

Tenants don’t receive these alerts, which are provided exclusively to landlords as well as block club leaders, neighborhood association leaders and business owners. Santos gave the example of a man who was accused of shoplifting $2.50 of merchandise at a store downtown and gave his correct address to police. The man then received a notice to vacate from his landlord. The shoplifting charges were later dropped.

“The city is disseminating information about me that I can’t get access to without doing a Data Practices Act request,” Santos said. “Why is the city providing a service to these landlords and community block club leaders that it doesn’t provide to everyone else?”

Not effective

The notices sent to landlords that often prompt the removal of the tenant made no mention of state and federal protections for domestic violence victims.

OPCR investigators randomly sampled 58 cases triggering the ordinance over a two-year period. While the majority originated with guns or drugs seized on the property, they found that four involved what could be reasonably considered domestic violence.

In one instance, a man choked his girlfriend, who lived in the home, and pointed a gun at her. He fled and was arrested with the gun. A Minneapolis police crime prevention specialist sent the landlord a notice of violation of the ordinance.

Attorneys at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid said they have seen multiple instances of the ordinance being used against victims of domestic violence.

Compounding the problem, the city does not track what happens after a notice of violation is sent to a landlord, said Cunningham, the council member. It’s not clear if the tenant left the property, and it’s not clear if the ordinance is helping to root out problems in neighborhoods.

When he campaigned for the City Council, Cunningham said problem properties were the top issue in his north Minneapolis ward. “Every block, that was brought up,” he said.

He said a new system for dealing with problem properties can both protect vulnerable tenants and be a more effective way to root out chronic criminal behavior in neighborhoods, rather than have problem tenants “move from one property to another property.” That must include consistency, tracking and measurement, Cunningham said.

“We have to know if what we’re doing is working,” he said.

Cunningham said he and Council Member Cam Gordon hope city staff can present a draft plan to the public in the fall.