“Crime-free” housing ordinances make mental health leader and advocate Jode Freyholtz-London angry.
“They are so ludicrous, and, if not illegal, certainly unethical,” said Freyholtz-London, executive director of Wellness in the Woods, a mental health nonprofit based in central Minnesota.
These ordinances enacted by cities usually encourage or require landlords to evict tenants who have higher levels of contact with police or emergency responders, or to even bar tenants with a history of such interactions from housing. Advocates for such ordinances say that they keep the peace in a city by limiting renters with a history of unruly or illegal behavior or “nuisance” 911 calls.
From Freyholtz-London’s perspective, these ordinances are particularly bad for people with mental illness, especially those with a history of calling emergency responders for help when experiencing acute symptoms. She believes that mental illness is no different from physical illness, and those experiencing its symptoms deserve emergency care just like those experiencing symptoms of physical illness.
“We would never ask anyone if they are taking insulin when they are moving into rental housing,” she said. “Or, if a person with diabetes called 911 because they had a reaction or low blood sugar … they wouldn’t have to share that information with a landlord or worry that if they called an ambulance they might get kicked out of their apartment. These ordinances make no sense at all.”
Earlier this month, Freyholtz-London’s anger felt justified when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the city of Anoka’s crime-free housing program discriminates against tenants with mental health disabilities.
The DOJ report stated that, through its crime-free program, the city of Anoka “discouraged and prevented tenants with mental health disabilities and those associated with them from using its emergency response service.” The DOJ also found that the ordinance had a limiting effect on people with mental illness and their loved ones or care providers, stating that they “refrained from calling for help to avoid risking their current housing or future housing prospects.”
Eric Hauge, executive director of HOME Line, a nonprofit providing free, low-cost education and advocacy services to tenants around the state, said tenants in cities that have crime-free and nuisance ordinances often call the organization for help.
Anoka’s crime-free ordinance, for instance, did a number of things, he said.
“One of the provisions they had went above and beyond what they had on the books,” Hauge said. “They were emailing weekly reports to landlords that had all of this information about emergency calls to rental units. That’s on the more aggressive end of things.” The reports were issued by the Anoka Police Department, Hague said, which “started to take it upon themselves to send this report to every landlord who had a license in the city, whether they requested it or not.”
The weekly reports included detailed information about renters, said Sue Abderholden NAMI Minnesota executive director. “When people called 911 for help,” Abderholden said, “the Anoka Police Department would issue a report on callers, including the medications they were on, the reasons they were taking those medications and the reason for their 911 calls.”
Shannah Mulvihill, executive director and CEO of Mental Health Minnesota, said the information shared in the weekly reports was “flat-out wrong.” Anoka police are, Mulvihill added, “sending out personal and private medical information. There is no reason in the world that this ever should have happened. I find it appalling that this even has occurred. We are talking about people who are vulnerable, and to share private medical information with their landlord is bizarre and completely inappropriate.”
MinnPost reached out to the City of Anoka for comment on the DOJ ruling. In an email, Anoka City Attorney Scott Baumgartner said that he is “not in a position to provide a comment at this time until after I have had an opportunity to discuss the DOJ’s findings with the city council.”
Abderholden said that crime-free ordinances are common and can put pressure on landlords to push out tenants who have a history of interactions with law enforcement. “Most cities have some kind of ordinance,” she said. “Landlords have to get a rental license from the city. If there are too many [emergency] calls to an apartment, it can encourage a landlord to evict people or they will lose their rental license.”
A ‘chilling effect’
This isn’t the first time that staff from HOME Line have heard about Anoka’s crime-free ordinance.
“We have advised renters in Anoka or in other cities about varying harmful consequences as a result of these ordinances, including times when people’s mental health disabilities were negatively impacted,” Hauge said. And it’s not just people experiencing mental health crisis who are harmed by these ordinances, he added. “In some cases, it can impact people who are experiencing domestic violence because they might be fearful of calling police or emergency services.”
When law enforcement gets involved in housing issues, landlords might “think twice about taking a chance with someone who might have in their background police calls happening or some alleged crime occurs that gets the city involved,” Hauge said. “In those cases, the landlord’s income stream is at risk.” This means that they may be less likely to rent to people with a history of emergency calls.
Though her office doesn’t oversee city policies or practices, Lisa Harrison-Hadler, deputy ombudsman for the Minnesota Office of Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement that she has heard of “clients being negatively impacted by policies such as Anoka’s, and we applaud the DOJ’s actions to protect the rights of persons with mental health disabilities. Specifically, preserving their access to housing, critical emergency services and assuring private information is not disseminated absent their consent.”
These types of ordinances have been found to have a negative impact on members of other marginalized groups. Hauge said that in 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development “issued guidance stating concerns about these types of ordinances because Black, Indigenous and people of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system in this country.”
This may be particularly true in Minnesota, Hauge explained, because members of these groups are, often, “disproportionately renting their homes because of other discriminatory issues in housing. There can be a chilling effect of landlords being less willing to rent to folks that have any sort of thing on their record, whether it is a history of mental health issues or previous convictions or criminal background events.”
Restricting housing because of a history of emergency calls is against Minnesota law, Abderholden said. “Our state law says you can’t do that for people calling 911 in an emergency or domestic violence situation. You don’t want people to be afraid to call in those incidents.”
Hauge explained that the law, Minnesota statute 504b.205, “confirms that residential tenants have a right to seek police and emergency assistance.” He added: “This law has been around for a while. What Anoka was doing with this ordinance is violating it. The law effectively says you cannot penalize tenants for seeking out emergency services.”
Anoka’s crime-free ordinance effectively goes against the law’s intent, Hauge said, and negatively impacts residents with mental illness: “What Anoka did here is very harmful.”
In response to these concerns, the Minnesota State Legislature has taken action to address the potentially negative impact of crime-free ordinances. Last session, Hague said, “the state Legislature passed another law that further regulates the reach of these types of ordinances. It is important to note that the state Legislature has identified this as problem.” The law goes into effect in June 2024.
While the DOJ report helps to justify some of her concerns, Freyholtz-London said that there is still much to be done to dismantle a culture that continues to foster discrimination against people with mental illness.
“The acts of discrimination keep piling on top of each other,” she said “People forget that many people who suffer from mental health challenges live a normal life and do not cause upset, do not pose a danger to others, live peacefully in their homes and do not bother their neighbors — including those who live in communities like Anoka.”