West St. Paul and South St. Paul have taken steps to restrict housing options for people who receive state assistance for being both low-income and disabled, despite Dakota County’s misgivings.
City officials say such residents call police too often and that their communities have more than their fair share of rental properties catering to their needs.
“We have enough of these properties in the community,” said Tom Seaberg, a South St. Paul City Council member. “It’s not a discriminatory thing, it’s an economic issue.”
Dakota County officials worry that the two cities’ use of ordinances to restrict housing will significantly limit options for the disabled. Others, including disability advocates, question whether the ordinances violate federal laws regulating fair housing and civil rights and conflict with laws that require disabled people to be integrated into the community as much as possible.
West St. Paul passed an ordinance in November prohibiting people who get government rental assistance and support services, a category the state calls “registered housing with services,” from living in the city’s apartments unless they’re already residing there.
People receiving assistance may be mentally ill, physically or mentally disabled or elderly. The services they get range from transportation and nursing care to help with cleaning or money management.
South St. Paul approved an ordinance last month allowing just one unit, or 5 percent of a multifamily building, whichever is greater, to be occupied by people receiving both rental help and support services.
In both cities, existing properties can retain current tenants who fall into that category, but they can’t add more.
Craig Waldron, former city administrator of Oakdale and a public administration professor at Hamline University, said he would be cautious about passing such ordinances.
“Is it morally and ethically the right thing to do for the people in the community?” Waldron said. “In the end, is it really legal?”
Dakota County officials wrote letters last fall to West St. Paul and this spring to South St. Paul expressing their concerns. Both letters said the ordinances restrict or prohibit housing choice for the disabled.
In the letter to South St. Paul, county officials said the ordinance could further concentrate disabled people because now they can primarily live in just a few buildings that are exceptions to the city’s new ordinance. They also raised concerns that the ordinance could make it impossible to develop more assisted-living facilities for seniors, a group that often qualifies for rental assistance and social services.
Cities’ attorney denies bias
“There’s a real shortage of affordable, available and accessible housing because of the rental market,” said Andrea Zuber, Dakota County’s social services director. “Any ordinance that restricts our ability to put services and supports in place around people who need [them] is just really going to hinder our efforts.”
Kori Land, the attorney for both cities, said that “registered housing with services establishments” is simply a land-use classification in state law. She denied that the ordinances discriminate against any specific group.
“If others think that these statutory-identified classifications violate federal laws or the Olmstead Plan, then they need to talk to their legislators,” Land said.
(The Olmstead Plan is a court-approved strategy to ensure that people with disabilities are integrated into the community with the least restrictive limitations.)
West St. Paul’s planning commission is discussing whether to loosen its ordinance at the county’s request.
Embraced by more cities?
West St. Paul and South St. Paul, two of the county’s oldest cities, each have about 20,000 residents. They share a city attorney as well as a recycling coordinator and fire departments.
Dakota County case managers, like in other counties, administer state funding and help coordinate housing for those receiving government aid. Officials from each city have complained that the county has clustered people with disabilities in their cities. These residents call police more often than the general population, officials said.
County officials acknowledge that the two cities have a disproportionate share of residents who need support but said residents often choose to live in northern Dakota County because of cheaper rent and access to public transit.
South St. Paul has five apartment buildings on the state’s “registered housing with services” list while West St. Paul has 10.
Tracking police calls
Dakota County has tracked police calls to such buildings in South St. Paul since September. About five calls a month come from that city’s registered buildings.
Those calls cost money, said John Zanmiller, West St. Paul’s mayor from 2004 to 2014. He said his city lacks the money to absorb even small increases in the demand for police services.
“It’s not unexpected that this measure was taken by either city and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more embrace it,” Zanmiller said. He said when he was mayor, he considered drafting an ordinance similar to those now in place but didn’t think it could withstand a legal challenge.
Dakota County Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord, who represents South and West St. Paul, said she believes someone in the disability community will eventually sue the cities over the ordinances.
Must prove personal harm
But it can be hard to challenge them because a plaintiff would have to prove in court that an ordinance has harmed them personally, said Sean Burke, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center. A disabled individual might not know that they were placed in Minneapolis, for example, because South or West St. Paul had restrictive ordinances.
Chrissy Shoemaker, 38, has a traumatic brain injury and is bipolar. She lives in a West St. Paul apartment and gets a rent voucher and services to help with managing her medication, cleaning, transportation and meal preparation.
Shoemaker said that without the help, she’d probably be homeless. Under West St. Paul’s ordinance, Shoemaker can’t move to a new apartment in the city unless that unit was previously occupied by someone on assistance.
“It’s not right because not all of us have caused trouble,” Shoemaker said. “Some of us are doing really good.”