St. Louis Park’s controversial crime-free, drug-free ordinance is likely on its way out.
All members of the St. Louis Park City Council favored repealing the ordinance during a June 8 discussion.
The ordinance, through which the police department had ordered landlords to terminate leases on a third strike in the case of disorderly use or immediately in relation to drug possession and other alleged crimes, launched in 2008. Due process concerns raised in the media prompted the council to suspend notices of violations in late 2018. However, other aspects of the ordinance, like an addendum to leases in the city that warns residents that they could be evicted for violations, have remained in effect.
A workgroup recommended either amending or repealing the ordinance.
Under the repeal option, a provisional license ordinance would be changed to allow the city to downgrade a rental license to provisional status “upon determination of ongoing public safety concerns, without regard to the number of reported incidents.” Landlords and involved tenants could appeal the decision.
Joey Dobson, a member of the workgroup who is a housing policy attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said council members should consider that they were having the conversation during a time in which city resident George Floyd’s death has prompted a debate about the role of police.
“I think this is really timely that the city is grappling with these difficult questions,” Dobson said.
Under the repeal option, Dobson said that if an incident arose, “Police could certainly still respond to handle the matter if it was indeed criminal.”
Landlords would have the right to bring eviction action for criminal activity. The provisional licensing system would allow the city to regulate landlords if a property owner is allowing unsafe behavior, Dobson said.
The city adopted the ordinance to deal with particularly intransigent property owners but the impact has really been on tenants, Councilmember Anne Mavity said.
As cities consider the role of policing, Mavity said, “I would say that it’s not in housing. ... They’re in the wrong lanes, and I think we see that clearly, literally, today more than any other time since we’ve been having these conversations.”
Suspending aspects of the ordinance has not had a significant impact on the city’s crime rate, but the ordinance has had a negative impact on people’s lives, Mavity asserted.
Police Chief Mike Harcey said that since the suspension, “I think what we’ve seen most often is a lack of being able to create a strong partnership with our owners of our buildings and our property managers because we didn’t have the ability to have that free flow of information.”
Mavity responded, “I would argue that our relationship with tenants – our residents – is more important than what it is with property managers and everyone else.”
Workgroup member Karl Gamradt added, “Do we really have such a huge problem in the city that we can’t get our landlords and owners to talk with us unless we have an ordinance to hang over their head?”
Harcey said he wouldn’t characterize the situation like that but said the police department had a system in place for many years with owners and property managers.
“I think just that reliance on us providing that information and not being able to do that probably impacted our relationship with them,” Harcey said.
Mayor Jake Spano replied that the city could create a new system.
Workgroup member Kristen Brekke Albright said, “There certainly is nothing in repealing this that would stop or hinder those relationships.”
The ordinance has created a power imbalance with a focus on providing landlords with “easy tools to evict with no need for substantiation behind that,” she said.
Councilmember Margaret Rog remarked, “Particularly at this moment in history, it feels abundantly clear that eliminating police involvement in the private housing market is the direction we need to be moving in.”
Most police calls relate to homeowners, but the city has no ordinance to remove homeowners from St. Louis Park, Rog added.
“We will always need people to protect us from certain types of crimes, but police response is in the end a blunt instrument for the complex challenges and problems of housing,” she said.
Renters are disproportionately people of color, who may be the subject of more police calls, Councilmember Nadia Mohamed indicated. She related two past police calls for noise relating to her family, between which no one called police on next-door neighbors who loudly sang Elvis Presley songs at midnight.
Under the ordinance, Mohamed said, “We would have been on our way to the third strike.”
Of the ordinance, she said, “I do not think it is racially equitable. I do not think it’s where the city needs to be heading, especially with everything that is going on and the change that we want to see in our city. It is the very systematic racism that we are talking about, and this is the exact policy that we need to change and we need to dismantle.”
Some representatives of property owners and managers on the workgroup did not support repeal but did not participate in the council work session.
Harcey said, “They look for us to provide them with the information they need to be able to act on their own behalf on what they would do with a tenant that is creating quality-of-life issues in their buildings.”
He said he needs to know about when the community expects the police department to contact property owners about issues in their buildings.