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Sue Abderholden, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wants to extend to the mentally ill rental protections that already are in place for domestic violence victims and their landlords. Keeping mentally ill Minnesotans in stable housing is the only way to ensure they get needed treatment, she said. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wants to extend to the mentally ill rental protections that already are in place for domestic violence victims and their landlords. Keeping mentally ill Minnesotans in stable housing is the only way to ensure they get needed treatment, she said. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Protecting mentally ill, landlords

She was a single mom with two kids, one of whom had a serious mental illness and sometimes flew into rages. Twice she called police seeking help for her child. After the second call, her landlord evicted her. Cops had been called to their unit too often, the woman was told.

Separate instance: A man suffering from severe mental illness began acting out psychotically around his neighbors. He played music at top volume to drown out the voices in his head. Neighbors called police. He was evicted.

These people did not tell their own stories. That fell to Sue Abderholden, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They told her their stories, prompting her to draft legislation that would try to prevent such situations from unfolding.

Abderholden would have connected them to a reporter to speak for themselves, but she can’t. “The last I heard, they were frantically looking for other places to live,” Abderholden said. “Now I have no idea where they are.”

She does not accuse their landlords of acting heartlessly. Likely they were protecting themselves from losing their rental licenses or being fined by municipal authorities, Abderholden said.

That can happen under a patchwork of Minnesota municipal codes that deal with landlords and unruly tenants. In Brooklyn Park, for example, a city ordinance decrees that if a rental property is found to be “disorderly” three times in 12 months, a landlord’s license may be denied, revoked or suspended. However, the landlord is protected if he or she evicts the tenant.

A number of other cities in Minnesota, including Minneapolis, have similar ordinances on their books.

Extended protection

What Abderholden is proposing — and plans to submit as a bill in the coming session — is a change to Minnesota Statues 504B.205. The law currently protects some tenants’ rights to seek police and emergency assistance without retribution.

Specifically, it forbids landlords from penalizing domestic abuse victims if police get called too often to the victim’s dwelling. It supersedes local ordinances — like Brooklyn Park’s — that require landlords to evict tenants after a specified number of police or emergency calls to a rental unit regarding domestic-violence incidents deemed disorderly.

Abderholden’s revenue-neutral bill would extend the same protections to mentally ill tenants and their landlords.

Her bill, which has yet to be reviewed by the Revisor of Statutes and as yet has no legislative sponsor, would add mental health crisis interventions to the list of emergency calls that cannot result in automatic evictions. It would also make it illegal for municipalities to punish landlords when emergency responders get called to units occupied by mentally ill renters who act out.

The underlying idea, Abderholden said, is twofold. First, the bill would help keep mentally ill people in stable housing. “You can’t get better if you are homeless or if you are couch-hopping,” she said.

Second, the change might make landlords less skittish about renting to people with mental disorders in the first place. “The police are not responding to a criminal act, they are responding to a health care crisis,” she said. “And I think the more that we can put it in that framework, the more we will have better understanding of mental illnesses.”

Hard to know

It is difficult to know exactly how big a problem this is, but there is anecdotal evidence that it is real enough.

A 2015 study by the nonprofit HousingLink and hosted on the Metropolitan Council’s website, provides some of that evidence. It surveyed 600 renters and agency workers who try to find them housing. Fully 49 percent of respondents reported that arrest records, even those resulting in non-convictions, were frequently or always used to deny housing.

That connects to Abderholden’s bill because mentally ill people acting out are often either hauled into expensive emergency rooms or taken to jail. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek in September released a study showing that 52 percent of his inmates need mental health services. “This new information is solid evidence that our jails continue to serve as the largest mental health facilities in the state,” he said at the time.

The HousingLink study quotes several agency workers whose clients were evicted because of police calls. One said: “We had one landlord that was not understanding at all of our client who suffers from mental illness. The landlord ended up getting in trouble with the police at one point. … The landlord was not going to renew [the tenant’s] lease, but wanted him out earlier and stated that one of the reasons was for the police calls.”

One documented fact is that the problem of mental illness and housing is growing acute. The Wilder Foundation in October presented results of its ninth one-night survey of 5,000 homeless Minnesotans, conducted in late 2015. While the overall number of homeless people dropped 9 percent from 2012, Wilder found a jaw-dropping 60 percent of those who remain on the streets suffer from serious or persistent mental illnesses. That was up from 25 percent when Wilder did its first survey in the 1990s.

“We have not had adequate housing solutions for the seriously mentally ill,” said Greg Owen, a consulting scientist for Wilder who helped oversee the survey.

To make matters worse, the rental market is tight generally. Cathy ten Broeke is state director for Prevent and End Homelessness, an interagency office housed at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. She said vacancy rates in Minnesota are about 3 percent, making it tough for anyone — let alone a mentally ill person — to find and keep an apartment.

“So people experiencing a mental health crisis have an even harder time getting connected to housing that’s stable,” ten Broeke said.

Legislators intrigued

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is one of the Legislature’s key housing advocates. She said she is familiar with Abderholden’s proposed legislation and is “totally supportive.” Likewise, Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, is intrigued though he wants more information.

“I think having landlords protected from this is actually a good idea,” Baker said. Landlords, he noted, are small business owners. “I think they should actually almost be congratulated and appreciated for making rental units available to folks that need that kind of housing,” he said, He said he wants to speak with Abderholden about her bill.

Hausman has seen no statistics on how many people either are evicted because of police calls or are denied apartments out of landlords’ fear of local reprisal if cops do get called. However, she said, she has known constituents who have dealt with the issue and does not doubt it is common, particularly in the Twin Cities.

“I am guessing that it is a very, very big problem,” Hausman said.

The timing for Abderholden’s bill — and for her separate but related pitch for a new, $3.5 million appropriation for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency’s Bridges Rental Assistance program for the mentally ill — might be good.

House member-elect Duane Sauke, DFL-Rochester, an advocate for the mentally ill, predicted just before the election that the 2017 legislative session will be pivotal for addressing mental health. “I think we are getting a critical mass of awareness,” Sauke said.

In one sign of building momentum, the final recommendations from Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on Mental Health were released Thursday. That group, chaired by Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, includes Abderholden and ten Broeke among its 24 regular and ex officio members. It held a series of meetings between July and November in an effort to create a blueprint for an integrated, statewide mental health system for Minnesota. Seventh on its list of nine priorities is stable housing for the mentally ill.

“The governor and Legislature should ensure that affordable housing — including housing with supports where needed — is available to all individuals and families to ensure both the access to and the effectiveness of mental health care,” the report reads.

Ten Broeke is optimistic. “I think education has taken hold,” she said. “Sue Abderholden, along and many others that have been living with this illness, have been talking about this for a long time. I feel real hope that, this year, it will get a lot of attention.”

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