A Minnesota city will rewrite an anti-crime law seen as harming mentally ill residents

A Minnesota city will rewrite an anti-crime law seen as harming mentally ill residents

A Minnesota city has agreed not to disclose private medical information about renters with mental health issues and to pay $175,000 to resolve a complaint from the federal government that the city discriminated against mentally ill residents in enforcing an anti-crime law.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday announced its agreement with the city of Anoka, a medium-sized suburb of Minneapolis. It addresses allegations that the city violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by improperly pressuring landlords to evict tenants with mental health issues over multiple police or emergency calls to their addresses. The DOJ also filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city, but that case won’t go forward if a judge approves the agreement.

The department told the city in a letter in November that an investigation showed illegal discrimination in enforcing a “crime-free” housing ordinance allowing the city to fine or deny rental licenses to landlords whose properties are deemed a nuisance or a source of criminal activity. In at least 780 cases from 2018 through mid-2023, the city issued weekly reports to landlords sharing details about people’s mental health crises and even how some tried to kill themselves, the DOJ said.

DOJ officials described the November letter as a first-of-its-kind finding of discrimination against people with mental health disabilities from one of the hundreds of anti-crime ordinances enacted by cities across the U.S. since the early 1990s. Housing and civil liberties advocates have long argued that those policies are enforced more harshly in poor neighborhoods and against people of color.

“Anoka’s so-called ‘crime-free’ housing program does not protect public safety but rather risks lives by discouraging people with disabilities and their loved ones from calling for help when needed most,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Anoka, with about 18,000 residents, is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis, and has been home to a state psychiatric hospital for more than 100 years.

The city’s mayor and its attorney did not immediately respond to email and phone messages seeking comment, but the agreement said the city denied wrongdoing and the allegations in the November letter and the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

“However, the City desires to avoid any litigation,” the agreement said, adding that Anoka wanted to ensure that its policies comply with both the ADA and federal fair housing laws.

The city’s $175,000 payment will cover compensation for people the DOJ identifies as having been harmed by Anoka’s enforcement of its anti-crime ordinance.

The city will have 30 days to revise its anti-crime housing ordinance, which allows the Anoka to suspend a landlord’s rental license if there are more than four “nuisance” calls to an address in a year. A nuisance call involves “disorderly conduct,” such as criminal activity and acts jeopardizing others, but also “unfounded calls to police” and allowing a “physically offensive condition,” without defining those further.

Under the agreement, the city cannot treat mental health-related calls to an address as nuisance calls, and it is required to notify both a renter and landlord whenever a call for another reason is deemed a nuisance call, giving them information about how to appeal.