The St. Paul City Council is poised to repeal the city’s tenant protection ordinance passed last July after a federal judge said the measure would likely violate landlords’ constitutional rights.
In an April order requiring St. Paul to halt enforcement of the ordinance, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson wrote that limiting landlords’ ability to screen tenants and forcing them to provide “just cause” when terminating a lease violate their property and due process rights.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker called Magnuson’s ruling “extremely disappointing” but said she will vote to repeal the ordinance to avoid an expensive legal fight that could drag on for years. She noted that a trial in the district court case wouldn’t happen until October 2022, and tenants would have no protection during that time.
“We feel like our prospects at that point would be pretty dim, and we would have really just upped the cost to taxpayers fighting what would ultimately be a losing battle,” Noecker said.
She and some other council members plan to craft a scaled-back version of the ordinance. As the council begins this process, members will be keeping an eye on a litigation surrounding a Minneapolis ordinance that limits tenant screenings.
In that case, Magnuson issued a November order in favor of the city of Minneapolis, writing that its ordinance was constitutional because it allows landlords the option to create their own screening criteria.
Attorneys from the firm Cozen O’Connor, who are representing the landlords in both Twin Cities, appealed the Minneapolis order late last year. A decision in that case will likely not be issued until fall at the earliest.
“This is the right move in the bigger chess game of advancing a fair housing policy in St. Paul,” Council Member Amy Brendmoen said. “We’re not giving up, but we’re also playing smart.”
The council ordinance to repeal St. Paul’s policy will be read for the first time at Wednesday’s meeting and likely voted on in mid-June.
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents property owners statewide, said in a statement that it was pleased to see the council considering a repeal that would avoid a prolonged legal challenge.
A handful of St. Paul residents, on the other hand, wrote online posts urging the council to continue defending its ordinance.
Council Member Mitra Jalali said she thinks the city should stand by its ordinance, citing the years of work that went into developing what she believes is a sound policy. However, Jalali said she would work to bring a new policy forward in “as close of form as possible.”
“What the community fought for deserves to stand as the law of our city,” she said. “When you push to expand the boundaries of the law, you do have to sometimes go through a legal battle in addition to a policy one.”
Tenant rights activists cheered last summer when the St. Paul council unanimously approved the new requirements, which they hoped would help renters find housing even if they’ve had trouble in the past. Landlords argued the measure could put other tenants in harm’s way and increase their risk of having to deal with property damage, unpaid rent and court fees.
A major sticking point in the legal battle over St. Paul’s ordinance was its “just cause” provision, which requires landlords to give reasons why they aren’t renewing a tenant’s lease. The pending litigation over the Minneapolis ordinance considers issues raised in both cities, such as limits on landlords’ ability to reject renters for their criminal history, credit scores and past evictions.
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