In the wake of a U.S. District Court ruling that questioned its constitutionality, Saint Paul’s new SAFE Housing tenant protection ordinance was repealed by the City Council on a 4-3 vote on June 23. Council members said they will immediately begin work on a new tenant protection ordinance, but that did not mollify some housing advocates, who wanted to see the city continue defending the ordinance in federal court.
The ordinance was adopted last summer to much fanfare by renters rights groups. It took effect on March 1. However, landlords and property management companies challenged the ordinance in February in federal court, claiming that some of its provisions violated their constitutional rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that the provisions limiting a landlord’s criteria for screening tenants and requiring landlords to explain just cause for not renewing a lease may indeed be unconstitutional and that the city was likely to lose the case if it went to trial. The case was scheduled for trial in October 2022. In mid-April Magnuson ordered the city to stop enforcing the ordinance.
A divided City Council
City Council president Amy Brendmoen and members Rebecca Noecker, Jane Prince and Chris Tolbert voted for repealing the SAFE (Stable, Affordable, Fair and Equitable) Housing ordinance. Voting against the repeal were members Mitra Jalali, Dai Thao and Nelsie Yang.
In addition to requiring just cause for not renewing a lease, the ordinance limited a landlord’s ability to use a prospective tenant’s criminal record and credit history for screening purposes. If an apartment building that provides affordable housing was put up for sale, the landlord had to give tenants 90 days’ notice before the sale. The landlord also had to pay a tenant’s moving costs if the rent was increased within three months of a sale.
“A vote for rescinding the ordinance is a vote for tenant protections,” Tolbert said, “because it will enable us to pass actual tenant protections at a quicker pace.”
“All of us are committed to getting strong tenant protections in place,” Prince said prior to the vote to repeal. “Nothing that we do here today should suggest anything else.”
Jalali disagreed, calling the ordinance a landmark in public policy that “is worth fighting for.” While acknowledging the potential costs and time involved in defending the ordinance in court, she maintained that repealing the ordinance sends the wrong message. “It undercuts the point of what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Yang agreed, saying the city could still be sued by landlords if a new ordinance is brought forward.
Defending the ordinance in court
Mayor Melvin Carter issued a statement after the council’s vote expressing his disappointment in Magnuson’s court order. The SAFE Housing ordinance was passed “to address threats of displacement and discrimination in housing,” he stated. “The tenant protections were developed through extensive engagement with our community and remain as critical as ever. We remain steadfast in our commitment to realize stable, accessible, fair and equitable housing for all.”
City Council members met with the City Attorney’s Office to discuss their options prior to the repeal. More than four dozen people and organizations weighed in, most of them asking that the SAFE Housing ordinance not be repealed and that the city continue to defend it in federal court.
Attorneys for the landlords and property management companies said that they would drop the litigation if the city repealed the ordinance. However, many citizens asked the City Council not to repeal the ordinance, at least not until a new ordinance could be drafted in its place.
The prospects for new tenant protections
Housing Justice Center attorneys asked the City Council to consider the potential impact a repeal would have on a similar court case in Minneapolis. The city of Minneapolis is currently defending the constitutionality of its own tenant protection ordinance in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Housing Justice Center called Judge Magnuson’s order deeply flawed. According to its attorneys, the order applies constitutional law in an unprecedented manner that could undermine the ability of any municipality to protect tenants. “Rescinding the ordinance could cause irreparable harm to the ability of Saint Paul and other cities to pass similar tenant protection laws,” a Housing Justice Center memo stated.
The Highland District Council (HDC) passed a resolution citing the effort put into the ordinance and how it has been regarded as one of the most progressive in the nation. “Housing discrimination and unfair practices present critical challenges to finding safe and equitable housing for renters,” the HDC resolution stated, “and not all voices were heard when creating the ordinance.” The HDC asked the City Council to provide opportunities for all interested parties to help develop an ordinance that is acceptable to all.
— Jane McClure
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