616 Summit Ave

Why Would the St. Paul City Council Gut the ‘Just Cause’ Provisions of the S.A.F.E. Housing Ordinance?

616 Summit Ave

Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible – even if you’re choking on it – until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”

– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

When the mere filing of an eviction case means that a family’s future housing applications will be rejected, many tenants will avoid a case at all costs. They will move out, tolerate unsafe living conditions, or decline to exercise their rights, allowing landlords to act with impunity. While these unjust screening policies affect all tenants, Black women are most likely to be blacklisted.

Sandra Park, senior staff attorney, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project

I write this essay with a heavy heart. If you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, it is impossible not to be carrying an emotional weight on your shoulders. A heavy cry for justice weighs on our cities. The death of George Floyd beneath Derek Chauvin and three other former Minneapolis police officers on May 25 is, without doubt, as heart-wrenching as it is historic.

For my part, I am writing about tenant protections, an issue I have been working on for a long time through the Payne-Phalen District 5 Planning Council that deeply affects people of color. To those who are hurting and working through the events of the past days, I see you. I hear you. I support you. Now and always. Black Lives Matter.

As Kareen Abdul-Jabbar says, “Racism in America is like dust in the air.” I aim to let in the light, and today I aim to let in the light regarding the St. Paul City Council’s consideration to gut the “Just Cause” provisions of the S.A.F.E. Housing ordinance.

What is Just Cause, and Why Is it Important?

Tom Basgen has already explained in streets.mn why the tenant protections outlined in the S.A.F.E. Housing ordinance are important to our city’s future. My earlier streets.mn essay describes how ordinances that curb gentrification also reduce carbon emissions in our city. This essay, however, focuses on a specific provision regarding Just Cause that the City Council is considering removing.

The “Just Cause” Notice provision in S.A.F.E. requires landlords to “provide just cause for non-renewal of lease or termination of tenancy at the time notice is given.” Housing advocates and people of color widely support this provision, arguing that this specific mechanism is the most important element of the proposal for protecting the rights of people of color.

Although the civil courts do not collect demographic data in St. Paul regarding evictions, studies and advocacy by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), Harvard University and the ACLU all make clear that eviction policy affects people of color far more — and more drastically — than their white rental counterparts. Because of this, “Just Cause” provisions are often described as civil rights provisions. HUD, the federal agency that oversees housing and urban development, has noted this in regard to criminal background checks and other rental provisions.

The “Just Cause” ordinance aims to provide transparency in the eviction process. It should be abundantly easy for a landlord to provide proof that a non-compliant tenant is violating one of the terms that necessitates eviction. In most cases, landlords can simply ask their bank to provide documentation that the tenant has not been paying rent. Requiring “Just Cause” prevents unsavory landlords from evicting tenants based on “conscious or unconscious bias.”  As Tom R. Tyler’s epic research has proven time and again, this legitimizes the justice procedure, which facilitates a safer, more democratic world for us all.

So why does the St. Paul City Council want to take it out? (Learn more at a public hearing on June 17, with the City Council vote scheduled to follow on June 24.)

The Landlord as Judge: An Exercise in Circular Reasoning and Bad Faith

The City Council has received significant response from landlords regarding the S.A.F.E. Housing ordinance.

It’s important to analyze this issue within a framework of constitutional laws that affect housing policy. Generally speaking, in both the fifth and 14th amendments, the U.S. constitution provides a right to “due process.” Famously, the 14th amendment — passed after the Civil War — requires states to provide the same “due process” as the federal government does.

“Due process” in housing may look different, however, depending on whether the entity that provides the housing is public or private. The constitution requires public housing to provide exactly what the City Council is considering removing: “just cause” in eviction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court says that private entities are not required to provide constitutional due process in their private business practice. That would give private landlords the presumed right to evict for any reason, as they see fit.

Community safety necessitates that wide authority, some landlords argue. Anything less than full authority to evict — for any reason, without any disclosure — puts the community they serve at risk.

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association (MHA) even quotes sentencing and parole policy to indicate that landlords should have a right to evict without showing Just Cause, as landlords need to be able to protect community members by keeping the peace. Note that this opinion places the landlords in the function of a judge, as sentencing guidelines are explicitly designed to inform judges.

Philosophically, the landlords are arguing that they are providing a “public function.” In other words, they are acting like the government acts: They provide public safety to the community.

This becomes problematic for the landlord’s argument, given that providing a “public function” is why the Supreme Court has declared that the government does have a right to require constitutional protections such as due process.  For this reason, public housing requires that “just cause” must be shown in evictions.  If landlords truly believe they serve a public function, they themselves infer they should provide a “just cause.”

This is a classic bad faith, circular argument. Aside from being a ridiculous assertion that any landlord has the skill set of a judge, landlords implicitly agree that they need to provide “just cause,” according to the U.S. Constitution, when they portray their service to their community as a “public function.”

The City’s Role in Government and the Community

The “Just Cause” provisions should stay in the S.A.F.E. Housing Ordinance. It is more than reasonable that landlords provide a reason for an eviction. This simple and easy act is a minor municipal solution that can erase a huge swath of racist evictions, whether by conscious or unconscious bias.

By handling this at the city level, the “Just Cause” provision is minimally inconvenient for the good landlords out there. By my definition, a policy that requires little work of good actors while measurably improving the lives of people negatively affected by bad actors is good policy.

I hope the St. Paul City Council agrees and does so unanimously. Not only were rental protections a key promise of most members’ election bids last cycle, but some councilmembers explicitly mentioned Matthew Desmond, a fierce advocate of eviction reform, in their election bids.

Voting against justice provisions that vastly improve the lives of Black women during historic civil rights protests would be an action that this community will not forget.

History is watching.

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.

15 thoughts on “Why Would the St. Paul City Council Gut the ‘Just Cause’ Provisions of the S.A.F.E. Housing Ordinance?

  1. Marc

    We already have “just cause” eviction. A landlord filing an eviction (unlawful detainer) is already required to prove in court that there has been a material lease violation by the tenant. Calling this law “Just Cause Eviction” is inaccurate at best, as it is unrelated to to do with eviction, which is a legal process for removing a tenant. Instead, the proposed law grants the tenant a perpetual option to renew, which might be good public policy.

    As a landlord my first reaction is to bristle at having contract terms dictated to me; the “Just Cause” title is inaccurate and insulting because it conflates eviction with non-renewal and implies that it is somehow ‘unjust’ when a landlord allows a contract to terminate according to the pre-agreed upon terms.

    So, should we grant tenants a perpetual option to renew leases? This provision transfers value (in the form of an option) from the landlord to the tenant -so the landlord will require additional compensation for the decreased flexibility and increased risk. Therefore, this provision will increase the immediate cost of housing and that cost will fall disproportionately on low-income renters because they are the most likely to use this option to compel their landlord to continue renting. Is the benefit to low-income tenants likely to outweigh the costs? Maybe. Probably. Moving is expensive, stressful and disruptive. The benefits of long-term-stable housing are well known. So, the public policy question distills to: “Should low-income tenants pay higher rent for more housing stability?”

    I’d support this law if it was rephrased and approached objectively. We should measure the resulting increase in rent and the increase in housing stability along with the benefits it brings to tenants. Let’s give it a try and see if it is a net positive.

    In my experience, most landlords like their tenants and wish them well. “Us-vs-Them” policymaking without measuring the costs (or even acknowledging them) makes for great reelection soundbites but will not produce a well-functioning housing market (which is in everyone’s interest).

      1. Marc

        I’m not advocating rent control.

        We need a functioning housing market. Price controls harm markets by suppressing supply. We need more housing supply, not less. If rent control seemed like an realistic possibility, I (and many landlords) would exit the housing market which would either reduce supply, or make it more expensive as because a landlord who purchases my properties would have higher purchase price price and interest expense.

        If anything, I’m advocating for the de-politicization of housing policy. Housing policy is too important to be a venue for populist politicians to signal virtue. If we want the private sector to provide housing, then providing housing must be a profitable business. We need thoughtful policies that balance competing interests and consider long-term consequences. The costs of all risks and regulations are eventually born by the tenant.

        1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

          It has not been my experience that deregulation of markets is generally good for poor people.

          It is also not my hope that the world I will build for my children will be one where the only way we can control prices for housing is by gutting civil rights provisions.

          I understand and appreciate what you are trying to say, but expecting me to believe that total deregulation of the housing market will result in a more just and equitable world for people of color seems contrary to what history has shown.

          The “just cause” provision in this ordinance is to prevent soft evictions, where a landlord can leverage a potential eviction to force a tenant to live in unsafe conditions. The ACLU article quoted and the Harvard article both speak to this. (Check out the data from 1978 from Milwaukee in the Harvard article.)

          I am having a very very very hard time seeing how regulations that merely inconvenience landlords very slightly will cause a mass exodus from the housing market. I also know that most of the data from this that is used to support this very argument comes from Seattle, a city that has extenuating housing circumstances. While I have yet to parse through that data extensively, my gut says that the data might be as effected by the boom from the tech people moving in to Seattle rather than being related to a minor inconvenience that landlords experienced from a municipal policy implementation.

          As far as the business decisions you make, the city is limited in how it will regulate you as the commerce clause of the constitution heavily benefits private businesses doing their business as they see fit. History tells us that how landlords have traditionally seen fit to do their business puts black women at a significant disadvantage.

          I still do not see how a slight inconvenience to landlords in this “just cause” provision for soft evictions in any way will predication the economic apocalypse landlords seem to think will occur.

          You are free to your opinion, as I am free to mine. I understand and appreciate your call to unity, but can we really be unified if the world is tremendously unjust?

          How reasonable is it to expect that tenants drop the “us-versus-them” ideology as you suggest when even the Minnesota Courts have acknowledged that tenant and landlord court is one of the largest areas where there is vast and systemic inequality?

          It’s not fair to expect people to be on your side when you are on top of them.

          1. Roberta AitchisonOlson

            Why would we give more credence to your thoughts than the findings of researchers who scrutinize the experience c of many tenants in peer reviewed studies?

          2. Marc

            Thank you for the thoughtful response.

            Declining to enacting a new regulation is neither ‘deregulation’ nor is it gutting civil rights provisions. While I disagree with the reframing of allowing a lease contract to expire as a ‘soft eviction’, I don’t think semantic arguments are fruitful for crafting public policy. I don’t object to regulation, or even additional regulation, however regulation that constricts supply or increases costs is ultimately paid for by renters, and disproportionately by poor renters.

            Perhaps the largest controllable expense for landlords is ‘rent loss’ the time a unit is vacant and not rented. Generally, landlords want to keep tenants who pay rent on time and who don’t cause trouble. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time as a landlord and as a tenant’s advocate, including in Minnesota Housing Court. Maybe there are landlords who randomly evict people because they are racist or don’t like them, but I doubt they would be in business long as they would suffer from a durable competitive disadvantage. Landlords bear the financial consequences and, in many cases, the legal consequences of tenant’s actions. In extreme cases, a landlord can be criminally liable or even have their property seized by the government. The current state of the law and financial realities give landlords a powerful reason to remove tenants who may cause problems. People deserve due process before losing their home, and landlords should not be the adjudicator. If new regulations were introduced that protected landlords from some liability, then landlords would be slower to remove potentially problematic tenants. This would lower the overall risk of renting, which would then lower costs. Landlords are not qualified, and do not want to be in a position of determining criminality and evicting for it. That should be the job of the criminal justice system.

            Landlord have many options aside from simply exiting the market, although evidence shows that many will do that if faced with restrictions that reduce profitability. Landlords may simply choose to move their properties ‘up-market’ by renovating them out of the reach of low-income renters. It is also important to consider all the new housing that won’t be built if the housing market does not offer a favorable risk-adjusted return. The left-leaning Brookings institute says the following in their summary report of rent control:
            “While rent control appears to help current tenants in the short run, in the long run it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative spillovers on the surrounding neighborhood.” https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-does-economic-evidence-tell-us-about-the-effects-of-rent-control/

            Many housing policies that appear pro-tenant end up hurting the people who they are trying to help by constructing supply. Decades of these policies have worsened the housing markets in DC, SF and NYC. As usual, the poor pay the steepest price for bad, populist housing policy. For rent control, much like Global Warning, decades of evidence is available and scientific consensus is reached.

  2. Ian R Buck

    How is Just Cause defined, as the ordinance is currently written? What kinds of things would count as just cause? Can a landlord bring up any little issue as a just cause for eviction?

    1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

      My understanding is the provision is more about landlords needing to provide their reason. It’s more about disclosure than the beginning of an eviction. The idea is that it prevents landlords from threatening to file an eviction or filing a bunk eviction they know they won’t stick just to bully a person into leaving.

      The ACLU article is the one that really frames it as a civil rights issue as this kind of practice effects black women renters more than their white counterparts.

      The idea of having a landlord have to provide the reason removes the ability for the landlord to bluff out a tenant.

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

        It prevents landlords from just being like, “hey Im not renewing your lease, see ya!” When the person has a kid or something like that. The “soft eviction” happens a lot to black women. If the landlord just decides they dont like the person or the person had a kid or any other protected reason in an eviction, they can “not renew” with no reason given. Asking landlords to disclose their reason just assures they are making the person move with good reason, not just “oh hey you have a kid now and i dont like that.” If you read a lot or housing court files, that stuff happens all. the. Time. And usually to black women.

        It doesnt really set the landlord back to provide a legitimate reason, unless of course the landlord is being racist. Then it can really ruin your racist business practice.

          1. Monte Castleman

            So any of the following would be OK to not renew a lease:

            “I need the place for my mother in law to live”

            “I’m selling the place”

            “I need you to move out so I can do a renovation”

            “Police were called to the place during the last lease term”

            “I see you drive a Chevy truck and I’m a Ford truck type of person”

  3. winoceros

    You can’t be evicted for reporting unsafe conditions through proper channels. You can even put your (on-time) rent in escrow while your landlord ameliorates the problem. A lease has a term for a reason. At the end of the term both parties get to choose to start a new contract. Forcing someone to continue their risk is unconstitutional. What if your broker wouldn’t let you sell stock, only buy? You’d say that’s criminal. Likewise, renters who want to rent from private landlords have to follow the Constitution. If they prefer guaranteed renewal, they can use public housing, and reduce the risk they assume from a contract. The reason black women are affected most is because they have children, want less disruption from moving (cost, schools) and because they are often not receiving just compensation from the fathers of the children, cannot afford a deposit on a new home, trapping them at their current rental. Been there. You don’t get to subsist on someone else’s risk ad infinitum because of your lack of options. It probably isn’t race-related anyway… the landlord rented to you willingly in the first place. Asking for protections that asks private citizens to engage in a new contract they don’t want is really ballsy. Better to support tenants through subsidies and keep your nose clean and respect the contract terms you signed. Sorry this sounds harsh but it’s like saying we need free health care and not understanding that you’re forcing labor of providers (who quit or drift elsewhere and soon your hospital is filled with nurses and docs from other countries). It would end with mass exodus of private landlords. It’s an investment to them, not a charity.

    1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

      “The reason black women are effected most is because they have children.”

      I just want to highlight that statement.

      It is a racist statement. You have a right to say it. But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?

      No one forces landlords into rewriting contracts because of a minor municipal provision that prevents bully of black women at almost no cost to landlord.

  4. John AbrahamJohn Abraham

    Have we really forgotten ridiculous stuff like Nixon intervening into markets to control prices in the early 70’s? This type of stuff used to be rudimentary back when people were more worried about putting gas in their cars than actual systemic inequality. Why can’t the same be applied now, since we have seen ways it can work when coupled with reforms to the justice system. You can see here what happens when city govt bend over backward to please the landlord class, they begin to truly think they are the only people that matter in these community living situations. Framing it as “us v them” is a subtle way of hinting that even if they don’t pretend to get it, they do understand such power dynamics. These are the things that need to be addressed, not landlord worrying about the fact that the can’t cycle through tenants as easily as they used to. And the fear-mongering about leaving the city is just that. If you want to act like you don’t understand inequality and how it’s perpetrated by the state, then leave.

  5. Benita Warns

    When you sign a lease to rent housing, you enter a legal contract for a specified period of time. At the end of that time, either party has the right to not renew the contract. Landlords are required to give tenants notification of non-renewal at least one rental period plus one day before the end of the lease period. I can’t recall how much notice a tenant has to give. Laws governing the landlord/tenant relationship also prohibit the landlord from taking any adverse action against a tenant who has reported unsafe conditions in their unit for at least 90 days afterward. When I was a landlord, I had a tenant who complained to the city about an issue, which was that squirrels had gotten into the attic and caused damage. We corrected the problem promptly, including cleaning and sanitizing the entire attic area. Our corrections more than met the requirements of the city inspector. Then the tenants wrote us a six page, single-spaced typed screed about how the smell of the disinfectant was unbearable (the attic was sealed off from the rest of the house) and how awful we were. Their lease ended just over 120 days after we received their letter. We notified them that we were not going to renew their lease. State law didn’t require us to give them a reason, and we did so outside the retaliation period. Honestly, there are some people who are difficult, and a landlord should be able to get rid of them without having to tell them why. For the record, the tenants were white. We have had tenants of color who have been great renters. We have had tenants with children. We have taken good care of our properties. We decided to get out of the rental business when the city’s inspection process became too onerous and time consuming to keep a property at the Class A level. We sold our properties several years ago and haven’t looked back. The just cause part of the proposed law would give tenants the right to demand to renew a lease. There is nothing to stop tenants and landlords from entering into lease agreements that cover longer periods of time than the typical six months or a year. Perhaps the city could provide some sort of incentive to landlords who are willing to do so.

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