Public needs renters’ perspective on Minneapolis proposal to limit screening

This commentary was originally published by the Star Tribune on June 4 and is re-posted here with the authors’ permission.

The May 31 article “Proposal may limit tenant screening” described new proposals championed by Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison that would remove some of the barriers so many of our neighbors face in securing safe, stable, healthy homes for their families. Unfortunately, the article glaringly omitted an essential perspective: that of renters.

As organizations that represent and work daily with tenants in Minneapolis, we commend the City Council for its leadership on affordable-housing issues and its efforts to specifically address screening strategies that are not supported by research and only exacerbate our housing crisis.

In our work we hear from renters who suffer from record-low vacancy rates, skyrocketing rents and unnecessary barriers to accessing the extremely limited housing options that are affordable to them. Misleading court records and exorbitant security deposits block many renters from the homes their families need and deserve.

That’s why the proposals from the City Council are significant and deserve fair media coverage and full public discourse.

For instance, the proposal would restrict landlords from screening out potential renters by using certain court eviction filings that could have no bearing on an applicant’s ability to be a responsible tenant. Right now in Minnesota, a landlord can file an eviction action in court the first day that rent is overdue, with no notice to the tenant. This filing stays on a tenant’s record as “an eviction,” regardless of whether the parties reach a settlement agreement, whether the tenant paid what was due or even if the tenant wins the case. To even have a chance at getting the record cleared, a tenant is forced to navigate a complicated and often lengthy court process. The result is tens of thousands of eviction records barring perfectly qualified applicants from the chance to contribute to our neighborhoods and communities.

The city’s proposal would also limit the kinds of crimes and time frame of a rental applicant’s criminal history that a landlord can consider — a step toward community stability that is strongly supported by research. According to a local study conducted recently by Wilder Research in collaboration with Minnesota’s leading housing nonprofits, criminal backgrounds have little effect on housing success. The study also found that the effect of a prior criminal offense on a resident’s housing outcome declines over time.

Finally, the city proposal would limit the amount a landlord can demand as a security deposit, a policy that is already in effect in half of U.S. states and many municipalities. Unfortunately, Minnesota is an outlier. While we stand on the sidelines, some landlords use high security deposits that are often two or three times the monthly rent as a tool to effectively bar certain tenants from renting a home — or simply to add to their economic bottom line on the backs of applicants desperate for a place to live. The insinuation that people living in poverty are more likely to cause property damage is based on offensive and, in some cases, racially motivated stereotypes.

Contrary to the thrust of the article — and its headline — the measures proposed by Bender and Ellison do nothing to restrict landlords’ ability to use the information most directly relevant to deciding who will be a responsible tenant. Landlords still would be able to conduct reference checks with former landlords. They still would be able to confirm an applicant’s income to ensure that person can afford the rent. And, of course, they still would have the right to take legal action to evict any tenant who is not able to uphold the terms of any rental agreement.

The proposed changes would be a positive step toward making sure our communities are inclusive and accessible for Minneapolis renters. As stated in the article, we are in just the early stages of this conversation. We look forward to the public engagement process, and to working with City Council to develop common-sense measures that prevent irrelevant information from being a barrier to housing.

This article was signed by Joey Dobson, a housing policy attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid; Eric Hauge, executive director of HOME Line; Jennifer Arnold, director of Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice); Margaret Kaplan, policy director of the Housing Justice Center; and Russ Adams, executive director of The Alliance.