Ethan Dean is on the verge of financial ruin because the city of Winona won't let him do what countless property owners have done for centuries: rent out his home.

Dean serves as an advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan and needs rental income to stay afloat while he's away. He never expected that answering the call to defend liberty abroad would lead to potential disaster at home because Winona does not respect traditional American property rights.

In America, renting one's property has always been considered a legitimate right of ownership. Winona, however, would rather see homeowners go broke than allow them to exercise it. The City Council has arbitrarily mandated that only 30 percent of the houses on any city block can be rented out. If 10 people live on your block, only three of your neighbors can obtain rental licenses. You and six other homeowners are forbidden from renting out your homes.

Dean lives on a block on which 30 percent of the houses have rental licenses; the ban prevents him from offsetting the cost of making mortgage payments on a house he does not live in.

Dean is not the only one affected by the city's ban.

Holly Richard and Ted and Lauren Dzierzbicki are three other homeowners suffering under this law. Richard attended school at St. Mary's University but has left to pursue a doctoral degree in South Dakota. The Dzierzbickis' daughter attended school at Winona State but has graduated, and the family wants to move on.

Dean, Richard and the Dzierzbickis each have decided to leave to pursue life, liberty and happiness. They put their Winona homes on the market, hoping to sell. Unfortunately, the down economy made that difficult to do at reasonable prices. Unwilling to sell at a serious loss, their next move was to rent out the homes and at least make their monthly mortgage payments. Renting is straight out of Financial Health 101 and is what all the popular financial pundits advise struggling homeowners to do.

But that's when these property owners ran up against the city's rental ban. The homes cannot be sold and they cannot be lived in. Dean and Richard are temporarily saved by a short-term exception, allowing them to rent their homes for now. But that exception expires in April 2012. The Dzierzbickis' house has stood empty for a year and a half -- all because the government stops them from doing what should be their right as property owners.

To make matters even more outrageous, the government doesn't even require that those holding one of the rental-home permits actually rent the house out.

This ban hurts not only homeowners but renters, too, because with fewer places available -- because of government-created scarcity in the market -- those fortunate few who have the government's blessing can drive up rents.

All this, however, is about to change if Dean, Richard and the Dzierbickis are successful. They have teamed up with the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that protects property rights and economic liberty, to strike down this violation of their rights. Together they are filing a lawsuit challenging the law under the Minnesota Constitution.

The lawsuit has implications across the state and around the country. In Minnesota, Mankato, Northfield and West St. Paul have passed similar rental bans, while cities elsewhere, such as East Lansing, Mich., are imposing their own rental bans. Other cities are undoubtedly considering equally bad restrictions.

Property rights are about more than ownership. They are about being able to use your property in a way that makes the most sense for you and your family when life takes unexpected turns. Minnesotans had the foresight to enact a state Constitution that protects property rights, and it is time for Winona to learn that the purpose of government is to protect those rights, not to drive citizens to financial ruin.

Katelynn McBride is an attorney with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter.