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Faribault settles bias lawsuit

ACLU, plaintiffs alleged rental ordinance targeted people of color

Laura Brown//June 24, 2022

aerial view of Faribault

The population of Somalis in Faribault—and Minnesota—has greatly increased over the last decade. This photo is an aerial view of Faribault. ( image)

Faribault settles bias lawsuit

ACLU, plaintiffs alleged rental ordinance targeted people of color

Laura Brown//June 24, 2022

The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Minnesota have settled a lawsuit alleging that the city of Faribault’s housing rental ordinance encouraged landlords to discriminate against people of color.

The lawsuit, originally filed in June 2018 on behalf of seven individuals and the Somali Community Resettlement Services, alleged the ordinance violated the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the equal rights guarantees under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Minnesota Constitution.

The settlement, announced June 15, includes a payment of $685,000 and modifications to the ordinance.

The complaint alleged that Faribault’s Rental Licensing Ordinance—Ordinance Number 2017-13—was aimed at reducing the number of people of color living in rental housing, specifically targeting Black Somali tenants. The population of Black Somalis in Faribault—and Minnesota—has greatly increased over the last decade. Minnesota has the largest Somali American population in the United States. In 2016, the American Community Survey estimated that people of Somali ancestry constituted 4.4% of Faribault’s population. Most of those individuals were concentrated in Faribault’s rental housing.

However, that surge has created some negative perceptions—in Faribault and beyond—that the Black Somali population was the cause of increased crime. In 2014, the city first passed the ordinance, despite Faribault Police Chief Andrew Bohlen’s warning that “fears and cultural clashes” were fueling the safety concerns.

The ACLU alleged that this animus was shared by city officials; one City Council member allegedly expressed fear about the growing lower-income population causing Faribault to “flip like Detroit in a few years.”

The lawsuit alleged that the Rental Leasing Ordinance was structured so as to force Somalis out of the downtown area, by targeting characteristics that were more common within the Somali population. Per the ordinance, occupancy was limited to two people per legal bedroom plus one—no matter the size of the bedrooms or whether other rooms in the unit could be turned into sleeping accommodations. As Faribault Somali households tend to be large, the occupancy restriction worked to disproportionately impact people of Somali national origin.

The ordinance permitted police to order evictions of all members of a household if any member or guest engaged in what police deemed to be criminal activity—that is, regardless of whether criminal activity was proven in a court of law, or whether there has even been an arrest.

Under the ordinance, landlords were also required to screen tenants for criminal history. Any potential tenant with even a conviction for a minor crime—despite the conviction not posing a present property or safety risk—was disqualified to rent. This disproportionately affected the Black Somali population as the likelihood of having a criminal record greatly increases in Minnesota communities of color.

The complaint stated “there is no legitimate, non-discriminatory, and non-pretextual justification for the ordinance.” In February 2021, U.S. District Chief Judge John Tunheim wrote that he inferred that the ordinance was implemented to displace Black residents, due to “the confluence of racialized complaints leading up to the Ordinance’s enactment, the City’s knowledge that the Ordinance would have negative effects on the Somali community, and the City’s desire to eliminate low-rent housing downtown.”

The litigation went on for four years but ended on June 14, 2022. That day, the Faribault City Council announced some modifications to the ordinance but noted in a press release that there is “no admission of liability.” The city of Faribault stated in the press release: “The settlement preserves and vindicates the Ordinance, the purpose of which is to provide decent, safe, sanitary, and crime-free rental housing to all residents of the City, regardless of their race or nationality.”

As a result of the settlement, Faribault will no longer mandate that property owners conduct criminal background screening (though it highly recommends it). Occupancy limits will no longer be impacted by babies and toddlers. Prior to this change, families were evicted when a baby was born. Police are also prohibited from ordering the eviction of everyone in a household simply because the police suspect one family member of guest is involved in criminal activity.

Alejandro Ortiz, senior staff attorney with the ACLU, remarked, “Jurisdictions looking to reform their own overly broad criminal screening policies and help end unjustified discrimination against Black and brown housing applicants will now have a model to follow with Faribault. Other cities across the country should strike down these unjustified crime-free housing laws and programs and instead focus on promoting housing opportunities and relationships with communities of color.”

The city, in its press release, stresses that the settlement involves “a few modifications” and that “problem tenants will still face eviction when they endanger the safety and general welfare of the community.” However, there is now a clearer list of what counts as “disorderly conduct.” For instance, calls to 911 are no longer characterized as disorderly. Only certain criminal conduct occurring on the rental property counts now—whereas, according to the ACLU, using loud offensive language could previously constitute disorderly conduct.

Teresa Nelson, Legal Director of ACLU-MN, said of the settlement, “This settlement sends a clear message that this discriminatory conduct, which robbed immigrants and Black people of their homes and pushed them out of the city, will no longer be tolerated here or across the nation. No one should lose their home because of where they come from or what they look like.”

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