It appears a new package of protections for Saint Paul renters will be withdrawn before it even takes effect. The City Council on June 2 held the first reading of a motion to repeal the Stable, Accessible, Fair and Equitable (SAFE) Housing ordinance. A public hearing on the motion is scheduled for June 9 and a final vote as soon as June 16.

The possible repeal was prompted by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson’s order in April stopping the enforcement of SAFE Housing provisions. The ordinance had been adopted last July and was to take effect on March 1, but Magnuson said parts of it likely violated the constitutional rights of landlords to property and due process. These included the sections that limited a landlord’s ability to screen tenants and required them to provide “just cause” for not renewing a tenant’s lease.

City Council members have said they will begin work on a new version of the tenant protection ordinance, although they have yet to announce any kind of public process.

City Council president Amy Brendmoen called the withdrawal disappointing. “Although the city respectfully disagrees with the court’s decision,” she said, “in an effort to mitigate the time, expense and practical delay caused by drawn-out litigation, the City Attorney’s Office has advised the council that rescission of the ordinance is the best course of action.” 

A landlords group sued the city earlier this year over the SAFE Housing ordinance, arguing that it violated their constitutional rights. The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, an organization that represents many Saint Paul landlords, stated that “as housing providers who advocated against the Saint Paul SAFE ordinance, we are pleased to see (its repeal) on the City Council agenda. We are hopeful that the council follows through, avoiding the necessity of a prolonged legal challenge.”

Brendmoen noted that tenants still have protections under state and federal laws. Nevertheless, she added, the City Council “remains firmly committed to advancing progressive legislation for stable, accessible, fair and equitable housing” in Saint Paul.

City Council members have said they will begin work on a new version of the tenant protection ordinance, although they have yet to announce any kind of public process.

 

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Frustrations for tenants and landlords alike

Saint Paul’s SAFE Housing ordinance was proposed in early 2019, after several months of public meetings. Tenants and tenant advocacy groups praised it as providing needed protections against illegal evictions and the inequitable rejection of rental applications. Landlords called the ordinance onerous, saying it would penalize good landlords along with the bad and lead to more unpaid rent, property damage and other costs. They said it would endanger tenants and drive landlords out of business, leaving more properties under the management of large and possibly out-of-state landlords.

One frustration for both tenants and landlords alike was that many of the hearings prior to the ordinance’s approval were conducted online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They said that discouraged a more thorough public review.

The Minneapolis City Council adopted a new tenant protection ordinance in 2019, and it too has been challenged by landlords in U.S. District Court. Like SAFE Housing, the Minneapolis ordinance would make it harder for landlords to reject prospective tenants based on a criminal record, credit history or a history of past evictions. A key difference is the Minneapolis ordinance gives landlords the ability to develop their own tenant screening criteria.

Last November Magnuson ruled that the Minneapolis ordinance meets the constitutional test. However, that ruling is now being appealed, and a final ruling is not expected until later this year.

—Jane McClure

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