Post by the Hawthorne Hawkman, photo from the Johnny Northside blog.
A few weeks ago, a small blurb caught my attention in the Star Tribune. A group of landlords had filed a federal fair housing complaint against the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was worth barely a few inches of newsprint, but the small article was so chock full of wonkish housing policy tidbits that I had to dig deeper. What kind of complaint? Who, specifically filed it? And most importantly, could I track down the full complaint document?
Well, the answer to the last question is an affirmative. The complainants' press release can be found here, and here is the full complaint document.
The case alleges that Minneapolis and St. Paul haven't complied with some reporting requirements, and goes on to state that since the Complainants rent predominantly to minorities, each city's housing policies have a disparate effect on people of a protected class. Therefore, neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul should be eligible for federal funds such as Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) or Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). As for who filed the complaint, there are a few infamous bad actors involved, such as...
...Ronald and Julie Folger, who lost all of their Minneapolis rental licenses last year, and two other landlords who need no northside introduction: Mahmood Khan and Steven Meldahl. There are two LLC's listed as Minneapolis Complainants as well, RBE Properties and SJM Properties. RBE does not have a current license through the state of Minnesota, but basic Google searches connect the name to the Folgers' rental enterprise. SJM is Meldahl's LLC. James Swartwood, a sometimes fringe political candidate and longtime landlord active with the Landlord Politics group, rounds out the Minneapolis Complainants.
Swartwood holds the distinction of being the only name in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul groups. St. Paul's Complainants are: Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church and its reverend Sylvester Davis, Johnny Earl Howard Sr., Gregory Ryan, David Roering, Joseph Egan, Robert Egan, Leslie Lucht, Ronald Staeheli, James Swartwood, and Kenneth Johnson and his LLC, CK Properties.
Since I am not as familiar with the St. Paul landlords and the ins and outs of St. Paul's housing policies, I'll focus on the Complaint on this side of the river. Although I do welcome any insight readers might have about the particulars of our sister city's case.
Normally my first inclination would be that anything Khan and Meldahl team up on HAS to be wrong. The fact that northsiders have been trying to rid ourselves of these two slumlords for years, and they're joined by someone the city actually has managed to shut down lends no credence to the claim on its face. But what if they're right? What if this is the housing equivalent of discovering plutonium completely by accident? Or in a reference that only the nerdiest of readers might catch, Ultron creating The Vision, which eventually led to Ultron's defeat?
Under federal guidelines, the complaint alleges, St. Paul and Minneapolis are required to do a timely analysis of housing impediments (referred to as "AI" in the document). Cities are supposed to review their housing codes, policies, and practices to determine if there are any impairments that primarily impact minorities or people in protected classes in a negative way. Failure to adhere to this guideline may result in funds being withheld. An AI report is required every 3-5 years.
The Complainants undercut their own argument by admitting that AI reports were done in 2009, although they later allege that the 2009 documents were incomplete and have yet to be updated. I find the prospect that this claim will stand to be highly unlikely. The city employees working on qualifications for such funding almost certainly did their job well, and if even they didn't then I think we'll see a resolution that isn't so draconian as to remove all federal housing funding in the midst of a crisis.
The approach that just might work - although it's a long shot - is the claim that the cities' practices, while impartial on their face, have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color or people with disabilities. The Minneapolis Complainants have 170 rental units, and allege that over 80% of those units are rented out to persons of color, many of whom are disabled as well. And the part of that argument that holds the most water is that demolitions, displacement, and inconsistent enforcement of housing policies have a disparate effect on people of a protected class.
However, even if that line of reasoning holds up to federal scrutiny, it would seem to almost HAVE to backfire on the Complainants. When eighty percent of your renters are people of color, and you fail to maintain your rental licenses due in part to basic clerical errors, then maybe the actions of Ron Folger are violations of federal fair housing rules. When eighty percent of Stephen Meldahl's tenants are in a protected class, and he frequently loses properties to tax forfeiture and demolition, how is Meldahl innocent of the exact same charges he brings forth? When murder suspects are arrested at a Khan property, when child prostitution is uncovered at another, and when a girl's dead body is found at yet another Mahmood Khan house, there would seem to be no way he could argue that minorities aren't disproportionately impacted.
The Minneapolis Complainants, at least, are guilty of far graver injustices than the ones they allege of the City. The more publicity they try and make for themselves, the easier it will be to ultimately hold them accountable.