A group of landlords is suing the city of St. Paul, arguing a tenant protection ordinance set to take effect in March violates their constitutional free speech, due process and property rights.

The landlords also argue that new rules limiting their ability to consider past criminal convictions when screening potential renters pose a danger to their existing tenants and employees.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of 18 landlords, asks a federal judge to halt enforcement of the requirements, which include new regulations around tenant screening, deposits and termination of tenancy.

"Our clients' residents and employees have an expectation of safe housing, and one of the primary tools to achieve that end are appropriate and consistent screening practices," said Steven Katkov, an attorney for the landlords. "The tenant protection ordinance requires St. Paul owners to accept applications from recently released murderers, sexual assailants and other violent felons."

The City Council unanimously passed the ordinance in July.

It states that landlords "must apply uniform screening criteria and cannot disqualify an applicant" for a variety of felony convictions once those convictions are seven or 10 years old.

"It's a potentially dangerous population to have around other tenants," Katkov said.

In addition to safety concerns, the new requirements take away "the fundamental rights" of landlords "to decide who will be entitled to reside in their property," the lawsuit said. That amounts to unconstitutional seizure of their property "to advance some unarticulated societal purpose," according to the lawsuit.

St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson defended the new ordinance, saying in a statement that it "embodies our city's commitment to ensure stable, accessible, fair and equitable housing."

"As we conduct the review of this filing, our ongoing efforts to support our community through this housing crisis, exacerbated by COVID, remain critical," she said.

In addition to tenant screening regulations, the ordinance requires that landlords provide information about renters' rights and responsibilities at lease signing; charge no more than one month's rent as a security deposit; alert the city before putting a property on the market; and give just cause for nonrenewal of a lease or termination of tenancy.

In July, St. Paul Council Member Mitra Jalali, who sponsored the ordinance, said its passage "couldn't have come at a better time."

"This global pandemic has illuminated housing access as an essential public health issue to limit exposure to COVID and protect our vulnerable neighbors," Jalali said. "

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037