“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.