The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency will offer free courses to landlords on how to defuse stressful confrontations with mentally ill renters, an issue that officials and counselors say has become increasingly important as mental health concerns become more prominent.

Such training was once reserved for workers in fields such as social services or law enforcement. But this spring and summer, the state agency will sponsor four free sessions led by trainers from St. Paul-based People Incorporated.

"When you think about people who get mental health services, usually the focus is on psychiatric issues, medicine, therapy," said Russ Turner, training director for People Incorporated. "But a big factor in their health and well-being is their housing."

Minnesota Housing first offered a session last year on de-escalation and mental health at a conference, where it was popular and well-attended, said spokeswoman Megan Ryan. About 160 people signed up, she said, prompting the agency to do it again.

Minnesota Housing surveyed property managers, who said they need de-escalation skills to deal with scenarios in their daily work, Ryan said.

"This was a big theme that jumped out of that," she said, adding that high turnover in the ranks of property management makes it important for new employees to get training.

Tension can arise in situations involving late rent payments, disagreements with neighbors or even parking disputes. The end goal is to calm the person down and head off a potentially violent response. Property managers can minimize conflict by building rapport with the person acting out, Turner said.

"There's a very big difference between putting a lease violation notice under someone's door and having a fairly skilled conversation about it," he said.

People Incorporated is providing the training to the state at a discounted rate of $10,000, Turner said.

The sessions will involve role-playing to work through real-life situations with tenants. They will touch on the causes of mental illness — including the impact of childhood trauma — to help people understand why some renters may struggle.

Landlords may either attend training sessions in Eagan, where most of them will be held, or watch a livestream of the training online. A session yet to be scheduled also will be held outside the metro area.

People Incorporated, which provides mental health services and programming, opened its training institute last year to provide classes on mental and behavioral health to community groups, employees and corporations.

Turner said he's been getting training requests from groups that haven't traditionally been interested in mental health. He recently agreed to train employees with the Hennepin County Library system.

"Five years ago, I didn't really … get these calls," Turner said. "We think the stigma of mental illness is finally coming down a little."

Kristen Kvalsten, a regional property manager with St. Paul-based CommonBond Communities who supervises 16 properties and almost 700 apartments, said she's taken classes on de-escalation and mental health for several years.

"There's an assumption that any letter received [by a tenant] from the management office is sort of a threat to housing," she said. "People can become angry, anxious and very combative."

Property managers tell her they want to know more about de-escalation, though CommonBond has offered related training before. She said the skills covered in de-escalation training are useful in many fields.

"For Minnesota Housing to open up this training on a broad level to those working in this industry is something unique," she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781