HOUSING IS JUSTICE: THE MINNEAPOLIS RENTERS PROTECTION ORDINANCE IS A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
By: Olivia Levinson, Volume 104 Staff Member
A single interaction with the criminal justice system can permanently label someone a “dangerous neighbor” and unwanted in communities. Over the summer of 2019, the Minneapolis City Council recently debated how criminal records can be a barrier to finding housing, eventually creating an amendment to title 12, Chapter 244 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances. This Post will argue in favor of the recent ordinance by claiming that access to housing is a civil rights issue and critical for criminal justice reform.
I. Housing is a Criminal Justice Issue
Access to housing, like criminal records, is tied to race and income. People with bad credit, lower incomes, or criminal records have a notoriously difficult time finding housing. Criminal records have been used to bar applicants from both public and private housing opportunities. While some argue that these records help increase public safety, they can also create barriers for some of our most vulnerable community members. Stable housing helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society, but criminal background checks undertaken by landlords can stunt that progress. We cannot expect people to follow the straight-and-narrow when we are keeping them in perpetual housing instability.
II. The Minneapolis Renters Protection Ordinance
The ordinance was designed as part of a larger racial equity policy shift in Minneapolis to reduce racial disparities, increase housing supply, and encourage diversity and affordability in all neighborhoods. People of color and LGBTQ community members “are particularly over-represented among the [Minnesota] homeless population.” This disparity also appears in credit scores and criminal justice involvement. The new ordinance addresses concerns about credit history by prohibiting the use of a credit score or insufficient credit history when screening applicants. Landlords can still create an individualized assessment of an applicant’s credit worthiness and allow the applicant to provide supplementary information describing their circumstances. Landlords can no longer screen out tenants for evictions older than three years from the date of application, evictions that were dismissed in the applicant’s favor, or insufficient rental history. A decade old eviction will no longer plague a housing applicant forever.
A. Unsurprisingly, Minneapolis Landlords Take Issue with the Renter Protection Ordinance
Property owners may no longer screen out applicants for stale crimes, which brings Minneapolis’ renting standards in line with the idea that some convictions older than seven years old should not hold people back from opportunities.Limiting what can be considered in criminal history checks can address recidivism and racial inequities in housing.
Landlords who spoke out against the ordinance honed-in on the criminal history checks as being their largest concern. Some spoke about it broadly as leading to unsafe buildings and wary neighbors. Others raised concerns that the ordinance did not factor in repeat offenders in its criminal history lookback periods. By marking the criminal history dates from the time of sentencing rather than release from incarceration, it is possible that someone who committed murder and served ten years could find housing before someone who committed a misdemeanor and served no time. City Councilman Jeremiah Ellison addressed this by saying that most sentences for murder are 25 years or longer and that people who are released from prison for murder charges are less likely to recidivate. Clearly, after a 25-year sentence a person has repaid their debt to society and parole has deemed them fit for release. That person should not be punished further by being stonewalled at every housing opportunity.
Though most of the landlords’ concerns can be debunked by research about the connection between housing and recidivism, there is anecdotal evidence that stricter tenant screenings could lead to more positive housing outcomes. Some of the landlords that spoke out about the matter said that their peers who do not conduct thorough background checks are the “slumlords” that the ordinance should be targeting. In an effort to curb these concerns, the City Council pushed the effect date of the ordinance to June 2020 for large-scale landlords and December 2020 for landlords who operate just a few units. Presumably, the later date for smaller-scale landlords is to allow them more time to adjust to these new standards. It is wholly speculative whether the ordinance will empower “slumlords,” but that risk should be addressed separately and not at the expense of the proposed tenant protections.
B. The Ordinance as a Long-Awaited Helping Hand from City Council
For many tenants, rent is the first bill that they pay each month, oftentimes forgoing other debts in order to maintain housing stability. Neglecting other bills to avoid eviction can cause credit scores to plummet. One Minneapolis resident explained that even though she has paid rent on time each month, she is denied housing because of her poor credit score. Another lamented about how difficult it was to come up with the $4,500 necessary to pay first and last month, plus a security deposit that was inflated for having a poor credit score. By capping security deposits and limiting the impact of poor credit scores, the ordinance aims to make housing accessible to more people. This is a step toward making the city safer and more accessible for lower income residents.
The Minneapolis Renters Protection Ordinance is not named arbitrarily; it was designed to protect the rights of renters, which in turn protects the disproportionate percentage of renters who are people of color and low income. By opening more doors to people with criminal records, the Minneapolis City Council also addressed racial and income inequity. Landlords take issue with some of the ways that the ordinance prevents them from differentiating between rental applicants, and fear that by housing people with criminal records, they will put themselves and current tenants at risk. The ordinance does not dismiss those fears, but rather brings them in line with data around how recidivism rates dramatically drop off over time. Uncertainty remains. It is unclear how the additional extra six-month waiting time will before the policy goes into effect will impact small landlords. Additionally, there is no language addressing swaths of prohibitively expensive luxury apartments around the city. However, this ordinance is a small step in addressing the broader housing issues facing our city. Ideally, it will spark a movement in which people do not fear neighbors who have had a criminal history, where landlords sit down with potential tenants instead of thinking of them as numbers and records, and where housing is not thought of as a privilege but a human right.
 Sentence dispositions are frequently left out of the picture in criminal records, leading landlords to think that a conviction took place when it might not have. Cf. The Eternal Criminal Record, James B. Jacobs (2015) Harvard University Press, at page 155 (describing the chronic failure to record dispositions of sentences on rap sheets which means that people who are searching criminal records develop the “false impression that the record-subject was convicted when, in fact, the prosecution was dismissed or ended in an acquittal or misdemeanor guilty plea.”).
 See generally, City of Minneapolis, August 28, 2019 Housing Policy & Development Committee, Youtube (Aug. 28, 2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdqDoQYNis8&t=10619s&fbclid=IwAR3nEyLFROboNMmpP4bLH4jZd0Mw8i3-m2ztjU7XXQx-g7Z-bck6BHa8Whk [hereinafter Ordinance Hearing].;
Report to the City Council from Housing Policy & Development Committee (Aug. 28, 2019), https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/Download/CommitteeReport/829/HPD-08282019-CommitteeReport.pdf (listing 57 community members and organization representatives as having weighed in on the matter).
 See e.g., Ann M. Aviles & David O. Stovall, When “Class” Explanations Don’t Cut It: Specters of Race, Housing Instability, and Education Policy, 19 U. Md. L.J. Race, Religion, Gender & Class 166 (2019) (asserting that 46% of community college students face housing insecurity and that Black youth are 83% more likely to experience homelessness than other youth); Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2017).
 See Eric Dunn & Marina Grabchuk, Background Checks and Social Effects: Contemporary Residential Tenant-Screening Problems in Washington State, 9 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 319 (2010).
 Jesse Kropf, Keeping “Them” Out: Criminal Record Screening, Public Housing, and the Fight Against Racial Caste, 4 Geo. J. L. & Mod. Critical Race Persp. 75 (2012).
 See generally Ordinance Hearing at 53:20, supra note 2.
 James B. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 43 (Harvard University Press 2015).
 See Maria Foscarinis & Rebecca K. Troth, Reentry and Homelessness: Alternatives to Recidivism, 39 Clearinghouse Rev. 440 (2005) (discussing the importance of housing in breaking the cycle of incarceration and homelessness).
 Ordinance Hearing, supra note 2.
 Homelessness in Minnesota, Wilder Research, http://mnhomeless.org/minnesota-homeless-study/homelessness-in-minnesota.php.
 See Grabchuk, supra note 7; Cf. Mark MacCarthy, Standards of Fairness for Disparate Impact Assessment of Big Data Algorithms, 48 Cumb. L. Rev. 67, 99 (2017) (describing how a Black person with a credit score of 650 may be considered twice as likely to default as a white person with the same credit score).
 See e.g., Valerie Schneider, The Prison to Homelessness Pipeline: Criminal Record Checks, Race, and Disparate Impact, 93 Ind. L.J. 421 (2018); Tanasia Kenney, Blacks in Colorado Arrested, Sentenced to Prison More than Any Other Racial Group, According to New Report, Atlanta Black Star (Dec. 26, 2016), https://atlantablackstar.com/2016/12/26/blacks-in-colorado-arrested-sentenced-to-prison-more-than-any-other-racial-group-according-to-new-report/ (“[W]hile Black Americans make up just 4.2 percent of the [Colorado’s] total population, they accounted for over 12 percent of all arrests and criminal summonses — which is almost three times their rate of the population.”).
 Ordinance Hearing, supra note 2.
 See e.g., 15 U.S.C. § 1681c(a)(2-5); See also Jacobs, supra note 10 at page 178.
 Ordinance Hearing, supra note 2.
 Ordinance Hearing, supra note 2; ABA, supra note 3; Martin Moylan, Minneapolis council members make changes in renter’s ordinance, but landlords still not happy, MPRnews (Aug. 8, 2019, 7:00 PM), https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/08/08/minneapolis-council-members-make-changes-in-renters-ordinance-but-landlords–happy.
 Ordinance Hearing at 47:00, supra note 2.
 Ordinance Hearing at 53:20, supra note 2.
 See, e.g., Valerie Schneider, The Prison to Homelessness Pipeline: Criminal Record Checks, Race, and Disparate Impact, 93 Ind. L.J. 421, 432 (2018) (“Though the goal of those who support denying housing to individuals with criminal records may be to increase safety or decrease crime in their communities, denying housing to those with criminal records has the predictable but absurd effect of increasing recidivism. . .”).
 One small-scale Minneapolis landlord said that he used to have to “eat costs” and choose between throwing families out of his units or losing all the rent that they owed. He said that before starting a screening process, about half of his tenants were “bad” and since screening, all his tenants are “good.” Ordinance Hearing at 1:06:16, supra note 2.
 Ordinance Hearing at 45:30, supra note 2; There are already State regulations in place regarding housing issues that are associated with “slumlords,” Minn. Stat. Ann. § 504B.131, Rent liability; uninhabitable buildings.
 Cf. Northwest Justice Project, Prioritizing Debt: Which Bills Do I Pay First?, Washington Law Help (July 2019), https://www.washingtonlawhelp.org/resource/prioritizing-debt-which-bills-do-i-pay-first (recommending renters pay rent on time before other bills because eviction can happen even if the tenant cannot pay because they are sick or recently jobless).
 Minneapolis City Council unanimously approves ordinance preventing tenant screening, Fox 9 Minneapolis (Sept. 3, 2019) https://www.fox9.com/news/minneapolis-city-council-unanimously-approves-ordinance-preventing-tenant-screening#targetText=The%20Minneapolis%20City%20Council%20unanimously,on%20criminal%20or%20rental%20history.&targetText=The%20renter’s%20protection%20ordinance%20prevents,housing%20records%20to%20deny%20applicants.
 Ordinance Hearing, supra note 2.