The signs popping up with the slogan "Safe and Affordable Neighborhoods Minneapolis" come in bright shades of pink, orange, yellow and blue.

The debate behind them, however, is not as cheery.

Since the signs began appearing in the city's neighborhoods — part of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association's campaign to push back against proposed city changes to how landlords could screen prospective tenants — there have been accusations of sign stealing, misinformation and racism. Meanwhile, other groups are posting fliers around the city in an attempt to counter the housing association's efforts.

Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy for the Alliance, a coalition of advocacy groups, said he has seen advertisements for the campaign on Facebook.

"Somebody could see those signs or could see these advertisements and not understand," he said. "I mean, it has the appearance of almost like a grass-roots campaign, and it's in fact just the opposite."

The campaign is the latest move property owners have made to channel their frustration over how City Council members have allegedly left them out of the housing policymaking process.

"Minneapolis is the only place where we don't have a seat at the table, and we're not listened to," says Nichol Beckstrand, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association. She said the negative reaction is from people who "believe we have no right to use the term 'safe and affordable.' "

"If you didn't have safe and affordable housing you wouldn't have people that wanted to rent there," Beckstrand said. "It's really ironic that they think we can't own that statement and that saying."

More than 1,000 people have signed up for the campaign's e-mail list and the association has spent more than $17,000 since May 30 on Facebook advertising, according to the social media network. Property owners have also put small postcards at tenants' doors and posters on walls.

Changing the criteria

The campaign comes ahead of a showdown over two draft ordinances co-sponsored by Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.

Under one of them, property owners would be unable to deny a renter on the basis of misdemeanors more than two years old, arrests that did not result in a conviction, expunged or vacated convictions, and felony convictions if the cases are more than five years old.

Landlords could still deny an applicant with a felony conviction involving arson, racketeering, manufacturing methamphetamine and being on the sex offender registry.

The ordinance would also protect prospective renters from denials over insufficient credit history, credit scores greater than 500 and eviction judgments more than three years old.

A separate draft ordinance from Bender and Ellison would limit how much property owners can require for a security deposit.

Public hearings will likely be later this summer or fall.

Housing advocates have said the ordinances would remove barriers for prospective tenants like high security deposits.

They have also said restricting how landlords use eviction records would help people who may have had an eviction filing but paid their rent off, reached a settlement or won their case.

Duckworth said that the campaign using the phrase "safe and affordable" was "subtly dogwhistling" to spark fear of potential neighbors if the screening criteria changes. His group produced a short video informing viewers the housing association was behind the campaign.

Some tenants are also pushing back. Anonymous fliers were taped on light poles around south Minneapolis denouncing the campaign. At an apartment building in Loring Park, someone taped a small handwritten note next to a flier. "This campaign severely misrepresents City Council's proposal, which is nuanced, understanding & recognizes the unbalanced affects of our society's system's [sic] of power," the note read. It was gone by next morning.

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association has said members are frustrated over how Bender has characterized their campaign. Property owners have sent e-mails to tenants that said Minneapolis City Council is "proposing major changes to apartments and other rental property that will put residents at risk, increase costs and destabilize neighborhoods."

'Misrepresenting' policies

Bender said in a June 17 tweet that "if you get one of these e-mails, know that your landlord is trying to threaten you — we are doing all we can to stabilize rents and keep Minneapolis affordable." She also said people should get in touch with her office or Ellison's if they have questions about the ordinances.

Bender said she's not anti-landlord but "it's concerning" that the association "would misrepresent the policies that have been proposed to their tenants." She said her staff has a meeting with the group next week but she has a scheduling conflict.

"I'm concerned that landlords are not only misrepresenting the ordinances with the language that they're using, but that they are threatening to raise rents to their residents and asking tenants to come out and speak out against protections for renters," Bender said.

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280 Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753