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ACLU Alleges a Southern Minnesota City Purposely Adopted Unfavorable Ordinances After an Influx of Somalis Moved In the Area

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature, files to run for the 5th district congressional seat that U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is vacating to run for Minnesota attorney general, at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Lacey Young/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union sued a southern Minnesota city on Wednesday, alleging its rental licensing ordinance is unconstitutional and discriminatory and aims to drive black and Somali-American immigrant families out of town.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Faribault residents who were evicted or have been threatened with eviction, says the ordinance violates the Fair Housing Act and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. It seeks a court order that would declare the ordinance unlawful and bar it from being enforced.

“To quell its discriminatory and misplaced fear of black people, especially Somali immigrants, the city enacted this ordinance aimed at pushing them out of the community,” said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.

City administrator Tim Murray said Wednesday he hadn’t yet seen the complaint. In a June letter to the ACLU, the city said the ACLU’s claims were unfounded and incorrect, and that the purpose of the ordinance was to regulate and improve living conditions in rental properties.

The ALCU says the ordinance was enacted in 2014 as the city saw an influx of Somali-American residents. Other residents and businesses had raised concerns about increasing crime and loitering, but Police Chief Andy Bohlen said any public safety concerns were unfounded and a product of “fears and cultural clashes.”

The lawsuit alleges a link between the ordinance’s adoption and animus against black and Somali residents. After the ordinance was adopted, one official in the predominantly white city of about 23,000 residents said it was successful in getting rid of “undesirable” people, the lawsuit said.

Under the ordinance, landlords must be licensed with the city and use leases that allow police to order evictions of an entire household if any member engages in criminal activity. Evictions can be ordered even when there has been no arrest or prosecution, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said there is a three-strikes policy for disorderly conduct complaints, giving police discretion in who they cite for noise violations.

The lawsuit says the ordinance requires landlords to conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants and to deny housing to those with a record of any kind — a policy that ACLU says has a discriminatory effect because black residents are more likely than whites to be arrested. But in its June letter, the city says there’s no ban on renting to tenants with a criminal record.

The lawsuit says the ordinance also limits a rented home to two residents per legal bedroom, plus one. That means a two-bedroom unit can house no more than five people. The number increases by one if all occupants of a sleeping room are under age 2.

The ACLU said those limits force many Somali-Americans, who tend to have larger families, out of their current rental units as new children are born — and sometimes out of town because there are few rental units available for larger families. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, most of whom live in the Minneapolis area.

One plaintiff, a Somali-American mother, was ordered evicted shortly after giving birth because the new baby put her family over the limit. Another Somali family is considering sending two of its children, who are U.S. citizens, to Africa so the rest of the family can stay in Faribault, the lawsuit said.

ACLU-Minnesota legal director Teresa Nelson said that while other cities have similar ordinances, Faribault’s policies are problematic because they’re mandatory for landlords. The lawsuit said the occupancy limits are more restrictive than limits for Section 8 housing in the rest of Rice County, and the criminal background check policy is broader than guidelines provided by U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

“When you look at the public record, I think it’s pretty clear that this was motivated as a means of pushing out people of color,” Nelson said.

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