Sweeping new tenant protections that were originally scheduled to take effect on March 1 in Saint Paul now face an uncertain future. A group of more than 20 landlords and limited liability companies has filed a suit alleging that the city’s Stable Accessible Fair and Equitable (SAFE) Housing ordinance violates the landlords’ property rights and rights of due process and free speech.

The 50-page lawsuit was filed on February 12 in U.S. District Court. The plaintiffs are asking the court to prohibit enforcement of the ordinance until a trial on the merits of the case can be held, according to Steve Katkov, one of a group of attorneys representing the landlords.

As of the Villager’s deadline, the city had not filed a response to the landlords’ suit. Nor has information been released on whether the ordinance can be enforced.

Over half of the residents of Saint Paul live in rental housing. The SAFE Housing ordinance was adopted by the City Council last July following over a dozen meetings and events to solicit testimony and gather ideas for addressing tenant displacement and affordable housing.

“The plaintiffs sympathize with the city’s broad intent for safe and affordable housing,” Katkov said. “We’re challenging the city’s unconstitutional approach to achieve those goals. And while the city’s intent is to create access to more affordable housing, the reality is that the ordinance doesn’t create one unit of affordable housing. In fact, the ordinance adds layers of cost that deepen the challenge of creating and providing affordable housing.”

“While the city’s intent is to create access to more affordable housing, the reality is that the ordinance doesn’t create one unit of affordable housing. In fact, the ordinance adds layers of cost that deepen the challenge of creating and providing affordable housing.”

“High rates of default can be economically devastating to landlords,” the lawsuit states. “When a tenant stops paying rent, a landlord may not be able to pay his or her mortgage or real estate taxes, and there is no mechanism to suspend those obligations while awaiting rental payments.”

Katkov works in the Minneapolis office of Cozen O’Connor. That Philadelphia-based law firm, Minneapolis attorneys Mark Jacobson and Cassandra Jacobsen, and Philadelphia attorney Calli Padilla filed the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs include Lamplighter Village Apartments, 1023 Grand Avenue LLC, 1708 and 1712 Grand Avenue LLC, 1947 Grand Avenue LLC, 231 Dayton Avenue LLC, 707 and 711 Grand Avenue LLC, Alton-SHN LLC, Alton-NFLP LLC, Alton-HRG LLC, Highland Ridge LLLP, Lucas Goring, Madison LLC, Minnehaha Avenue Apartments LLC, Oaks Union Depot LLC, Oxford Apartments LLC, Plaza LLLP, Rockwood Place LP, Wellington-NFLP, Wellington-PFP LLC, Wellington-SHN LLC, Woodstone Limited Partnership, and Chue Kue and Yea Thao.

What SAFE Housing provides

With the SAFE Housing ordinance, Saint Paul would become the first city in Minnesota to require landlords to provide “just cause” for terminating or not renewing a tenant’s lease. The ordinance would also limit the conditions under which landlords may terminate a lease. Some tenant advocacy groups have claimed that leases were being terminated simply because a tenant asked for repairs to his or her apartment.

The ordinance would limit the use of credit and criminal history in screening prospective tenants and would change how past evictions are considered when a rental application is reviewed. Tenants could not be denied a lease if they were convicted of a misdemeanor more than three years earlier or a felony more than seven years earlier, unless those convictions were for murder, distributing or manufacturing a controlled substance, arson, kidnapping, assault, robbery, manslaughter or criminal sexual conduct, or if they were on the lifetime sexual offender registry.

The ordinance would cap the security deposit a landlord may require to the equivalent of one month’s rent. It also would require landlords to provide the city and tenants with 90-day notice of an impending sale of the rental property and to provide tenants with packets of information on tenants’ rights and responsibilities.

Landlords may choose not to renew a lease if a tenant has failed to pay rent, is habitually late with rent or has violated significant conditions of the lease. A lease may also be terminated if a landlord wishes to renovate a unit or wants to rent the unit to a family member.

Tenant screening provisions criticized

Katkov criticized the ordinance’s provisions on screening tenants with a criminal history as being too vague. According to him, they appear to prevent landlords from rejecting at least some murderers and rapists who are on parole.

The period during which past crimes may be considered by landlords begins on the date of sentencing. That means a murderer or rapist who was sentenced in 2010 to prison followed by five years of parole could not be rejected in a tenant screening if he or she was released from prison last week, Katkov said. Parole is intended to keep close tabs on an ex-convict to protect the public and prevent him or her from reoffending, Katkov said. How can one argue that the parolee presents no increased risk to fellow tenants? he asked.

Prospects for mediation?

Local landlords who are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they are following the case closely. “There are many parts of the ordinance that I already practice and welcome,” said Jeffrey Arnold of Lakewood Properties, “but it has some serious flaws which the city could have avoided through better outreach and cooperation with landlords and property managers early on. I’m hoping for a more balanced set of rules that benefit both landlords and tenants.”

Carolyn Brown, codirector of the Community Stabilization Project, which works on housing issues, said she was not surprised by the landlords’ lawsuit. “People in our community face a lot of challenges trying to find and retain housing,” Brown said. However, she would prefer to see the landlords’ complaints resolved through mediation.

Tenant advocacy groups began working on the ordinance in 2016. There was plenty of time for both sides to weigh in, Brown said, but if more time is needed to work out the differences, that should happen.

— Jane McClure

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