West St. Paul passed an ordinance in November restricting where some disabled people who receive government rental assistance and support services can live, barring them from areas zoned for townhouses or apartments in the future.
City officials say their police department has been overburdened with calls from apartment buildings filled with disabled people who qualify for state-provided rent subsidies and county support services.
Disability advocates contend the ordinance is discriminatory, and Dakota County officials say it “severely restricts choice” for the disabled.
Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, said the ordinance may conflict with federal fair housing rules.
“A person with a disability has a right to live anywhere they choose, just like any other person would have,” Opheim said.
West St. Paul officials said the ordinance is aimed at companies that are providing the apartments — not disabled people.
“It’s not the people we’re regulating — we’re regulating the business, and that’s how we had to view it,” said City Attorney Kori Land.
She said it’s not fair to the rest of the community to allow some housing units to tie up police or other public services.
The ordinance comes after a yearlong West St. Paul moratorium on issuing new group home licenses, which began in summer 2015.
Land said the ordinance only will be enforced in buildings in which a majority of residents receive services, though the ordinance doesn’t specify that.
The ordinance allows existing properties to stay.
If a property is “under my radar,” Land said, “I don’t care if they continue to exist — they’re providing a good business, then.”
Residents who receive benefits that the state calls “registered housing with services” live independently but qualify for services such as transportation, money management or nursing assistance.
The company that owns the buildings in which they live also might administer the services they receive.
Recipients might be elderly, mentally ill, cognitively or physically disabled or recovering from addiction, according to state law.
Dakota County officials count about 400 seniors and 100 disabled people who live in “registered housing with services” in West St. Paul.
Police Chief Bud Shaver said service providers are buying apartments and receiving state dollars to administer those services, but some are mismanaging the buildings.
“Some of them are providing services very well; some are slumlords,” Shaver said. “[Residents] are not getting the support services they need, and that help is ending up on the backs of police officers.”
Shaver said these buildings generate up to 10 times the police calls of a building with mainly market-rate tenants.
He compared two mostly market-rate apartment buildings with two buildings housing mostly people with special needs.
Each had 22 units, but the special-needs buildings generated 85 calls in the past six months while the market-rate buildings prompted nine, Shaver said.
Police have received calls about yelling, urination, screeching tires, drinking outside buildings, fights, loud cars, short-term traffic indicative of drug dealing and suspected prostitution at the buildings, he said.
Shaver said the county has “a real lack of a plan” when placing needy residents in communities.
Andrea Zuber, county social services director, wrote West St. Paul a letter objecting to the ordinance. Zuber said that Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan, mandated by a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision, emphasizes that people with disabilities must be allowed to choose appropriate places to live within a community.
The plan is a road map that widens Minnesota’s range of living options for the disabled, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled people with severe behavioral problems.
It applies to thousands of individuals, including those in the state’s sex offender rehabilitation program, with the goal of moving them into the least restrictive housing.
Zuber said the county will work with disabled residents who still want to live in West St. Paul by exploring alternate programs and funding sources.
“I think it will be challenging,” said Gene Martinez, a senior public policy advocate for the ARC, a nonprofit that advocates for disabled people. “A lot of people are waiting for housing right now.”
It’s unclear how many cities have taken the same route because the League of Minnesota Cities doesn’t track this type of ordinance.
The Association of Minnesota Counties said it hasn’t heard of other cities enacting similar laws.
South St. Paul Mayor Beth Baumann said her city is considering similar restrictions.
Some St. Paul residents pushed the city this year to put more limits on the proximity of “sober houses” that provide support to recovering addicts, but the City Council refused.
The U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a statement Nov. 10 warning that the Fair Housing Act says cities and states can’t make zoning laws that restrict where disabled people can live.
Cheryl Pray, the CEO of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota, a nonprofit association advocating for disability services, called West St. Paul’s ordinance “concerning.”
Sean Burke, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, said federal and state anti-discrimination laws are designed to ensure disabled people have the same housing access as anyone else.
“Local zoning ordinances that intentionally discriminate or have the effect of discriminating against protected classes of people, such as persons with disabilities, may be in violation of such protections,” said Burke, who has no clients challenging the ordinance.