St. Louis Park police, at least for now, will stop telling landlords about possible criminal activity in or around their rental properties and will no longer require landlords to kick out tenants linked to crimes.
The City Council voted unanimously last week to place a moratorium on its 10-year-old “crime-free/drug-free” multifamily housing ordinance amid questions about whether it helps or hurts renters. City officials plan to organize a task force early in 2019 to study the law’s effects.
“This topic has pulled on heartstrings,” Council Member Rachel Harris said at the meeting.
Under the ordinance, police contact landlords after responding to a complaint about crime or disorderly conduct in one of their rental units. If officers find evidence of criminal or drug activity by residents or guests, they may require the landlord to evict the tenants immediately. Landlords who don’t act can be fined $750 for every month the problem tenants remain.
On less serious issues, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing, landlords must kick out tenants if they’re notified about problems three times within a year.
So-called “crime-free” ordinances are popular in cities across the country, including at least 20 in Minnesota, most of them in the metro area, according to a report by St. Louis Park city staff.
St. Louis Park has more than 11,000 rental units, representing nearly half its households. In 2017, police recorded 20 immediate terminations and eight third-strikes; as of last week, there had been 16 terminations and one third-strike violation this year.
Council Member Anne Mavity said she thinks the ordinance keeps renters from reporting problems for fear of triggering an eviction, which may hurt a renter’s future efforts to find housing.
The ordinance also deprives tenants of due process, she said, penalizing people who haven’t necessarily been convicted of a crime or even charged with one.
“The tenants who are really at the core of this have no voice in this, they have no power to appeal it,” Mavity said at the council meeting.
Council Member Thom Miller said he favored eliminating the eviction requirement but still wanted police to send the first two warning letters. He said that while the ordinance had the potential to be enforced disproportionately against people of color, many tenants and landlords “are perhaps counting on police to help enforce that ordinance” to keep their communities safe.
Mavity said that many studies have found crime-free laws can actually exacerbate crime by making tenants afraid to report problems.
“I think that is a very legitimate concern, that the presence of an ordinance like this on the books will chill people from calling police when they need assistance. I’m not aware of any study that shows these ordinances have a positive effect,” said Illinois ACLU lawyer Emily Werth in an interview. Werth wrote a 2013 report on the issue for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
Mayor Jake Spano said reliable information about the ordinance’s effects is limited because “most of the people that have been in this conversation are middle-class white folks.” So he reached out to a few renters, including Yolanda Farris, a coach and former client at a St. Louis Park program that provides homes for women recovering from chemical abuse.
Farris said she favors the ordinance. Drug use in nearby apartments is a problem for women trying to stay sober, she said.
“How are these upper-class white people going to talk about me?” Farris said, referring to the City Council. “They don’t know me. They don’t know how I live.”