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Criminal Background Checks for Renters in Minnesota Are Discriminatory and Violate Fair Housing Act: City to Pay In Lawsuit Settlement

The city of Faribault, Minnesota, has settled a racial rental discrimination suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota over the city’s requirement that criminal background checks be done for rentals in the city. The city will pay a $685,000 settlement, among other things. 

Faribault is about 46 miles from Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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The ACLU of Minnesota said a city ordinance encouraged landlords to discriminate, limiting housing opportunities for people of color. 

The organization claimed the mandatory background checks and vague disorderly conduct rules were discriminatory to Black tenants because “Black Minnesotans are vastly more likely to have a criminal record than are white Minnesotans,” the lawsuit said. Black Minnesotans are “more likely to be targeted by police and have criminal records, due to systemic racism in the criminal legal system,” an ACLU statement claims.

The lawsuit argued that the city’s policies violated the Fair Housing Act, the Minnesota Constitution, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The policies in question allowed landlords to bar housing applicants with a criminal record and also authorized police to evict tenants without due process. The city policies also allowed landlords to evict families for violating occupancy limits after having a baby, CBS News reported.

The settlement, which was announced on June 15, declares that the city no longer will require landlords to conduct criminal background checks on prospective tenants.

Following the settlement, the Faribault City Council voted to overhaul its Rental Licensing Ordinance and Crime-Free Multi-Housing program. Faribault is now making criminal background checks optional and revising other rental housing rules.

Moving forward, landlords who conduct background checks may only consider select felony criminal convictions within the prior five years. The crimes may include theft, vandalism, other fraud, property-related crimes, sexual assaults and “major violent offenses.”

“We believe Faribault passed this unequitable and unconstitutional ordinance to target its rapidly growing communities of color,” ACLU of Minnesota Legal Director Teresa Nelson said in a statement. “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,” court records state.

The ACLU filed the class action lawsuit in 2018, claiming the city’s policies were discriminatory and were in place as a way to “reducing the number of people of color living in rental housing.” The organization filed a suit on behalf of seven tenants who faced eviction. The organization Somali Community Resettlement Services also was involved in the lawsuit against the city.

An estimated 4,000 Somali residents have put down roots in Faribault.

“These discriminatory city policies made the Somali community feel singled out and unwelcome,” Harun Mohamed Ali of Somali Community Resettlement Services said in a statement to Southern Minnesota. “Some Somali families were evicted after simply having a baby. Having a newborn should be a time for joy and celebration, not a time for fear of losing your housing and security.”

According to the ACLU, the settlement includes reforms designed to end discrimination in housing. The organization sees the settlement as a model to help end similar housing policies in cities around the country. 

Landlords must now give prospective tenants with potentially disqualifying felony criminal records the opportunity to provide additional information that the landlord must consider, such as letters of reference.

In addition, landlords must now consider factors such as age, mental health and “evidence of rehabilitation” efforts when deciding whether to rent to someone with a felony conviction. The city does not dictate if or under what circumstances landlords may rent to someone with a criminal history.

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