Change is needed to prevent cities from forcing community-based housing out

For almost 10 years, disability advocates, myself included, have voiced concerns regarding cities arbitrarily applying municipal rental ordinances to community-based […]

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For almost 10 years, disability advocates, myself included, have voiced concerns regarding cities arbitrarily applying municipal rental ordinances to community-based settings. In 2024, we are finally seeing some progress on addressing these concerns, in large part to a bill authored by Representative Brion Curran (DFL- White Bear Lake), House File 3938, and Senator Liz Boldon (DFL- Rochester), Senate File 3839. 

At issue is whether cities should have the ability to arbitrarily apply more stringent standards to residential settings licensed by the Minnesota Departments of Health and/or Human Services. In 2023, we saw news stories about cities revoking local rental licenses, and de facto evicting group homes from within their borders. These NIMBY-driven policies and practices prevent our fellow Minnesotans, including those with disabilities, from living in the communities they choose. 

As a city council member in Elko New Market, an active member of the League of Minnesota Cities, and a member of the Board of Directors of Metro Cities, I suppose I should be defending cities and their ability to use tools like rental ordinances to regulate activity. But as someone who has worked in disability services for years, is a leader within a St-Paul-based nonprofit providing affordable and accessible housing, and volunteers my time serving on ARRM’s Board of Directors, I know cities are on the wrong side of this issue, and I support HF3938/SF3839’s efforts to correct that.  

Cities contend that “local control” is critical to ensuring the livability and safety standards for communities, and rental licensing ordinances are designed to allow cities to quickly respond to and address issues. That may be true, but it is also true that there are countless safeguards and redundancies already in place to address these issues, through individual counties, state agencies, and the state fire code. In most circumstances, the standards and requirements imposed by state agencies are more comprehensive in addressing a wide array of issues than what local rental ordinances do. Local control, in this case, provides nothing other an opportunity for local governments to overrule the licensing procedures of state agencies and to discriminate on behalf of residents, often as a concession to NIMBYISM, who don’t want people with disabilities living in their neighborhoods. 

Thankfully, most cities already defer to the state and exempt residential settings from their rental housing ordinances, but not all. These bills are necessary because some cities insist on using rental ordinances to drive group homes out of their communities. In recent months, I’ve spoken with several council members, mayors, and staff from cities across the metro that exempt these settings from rental regulations, and when asked why their respective cities choose this approach, the resounding theme is “why would we waste valuable city resources to duplicate something the state and counties are already doing?” 

HF3938/SF3839 is also about bringing stability and consistency to a vital support network that has been stretched thin in recent years. When residential settings run the risk of arbitrary “eviction” from local government, the mental and physical impact on those living and working there is too great for the Legislature to ignore. Consistency and fairness are important as well. Cities cannot explain why some cities allow a state-licensed home that serves primarily older adults to be exempt from obtaining a rental license/permit but a state-licensed home that provides supports to individuals with disabilities are required to. But we know why. Situations like this reek of ableism and ageism, and the Legislature should step in and put these controversial and unfair practices to rest.  

We also must look at issues elsewhere in the care profession and how they might be connected to this issue. We’ve all heard of the overcrowding issue in hospitals and emergency rooms. This specific issue has been brought up at the Acute Care Transitions Advisory Council as one of the several significant barriers to finding housing and supports for individuals stuck in hospitals. Discriminatory local ordinances contribute to this issue. Providers operating in cities that require a rental license/permit are often afraid to accept individuals with complex care needs, including mental health issues or severe behavioral challenges because they fear that the city could arbitrarily and capriciously revoke that license/permit if neighbors complain. This keeps people in hospitals instead of in communities that can care for them and support them. 

The debate over HF3938/SF3839 boils down to “local government control” or “putting people first” and I hope we all agree that the latter is far more important.   

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