St. Paul and Minneapolis have been accused of housing discrimination in a federal complaint for their attempts to crack down on code violations at privately owned apartments. The leader of a historically black Baptist church in St. Paul, a Frogtown neighborhood activist and several landlords filed the complaint with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department on Monday, Nov. 5. The 39-page complaint alleges that the cities have resorted to "forced gentrification" by pushing low-income residents, many of them minorities, out of private dwellings. Both cities have supported an increase in public housing and housing overseen by nonprofit groups that offer supportive services, such as the St. Paul Public Housing Agency or Episcopal Homes. The complainants, however, say such institutional housing effectively segregates low-income minorities into particular corners of the city. "Now, they can't find an affordable housing unit maybe where they need to, close to work, or close to where their grandmother is that provides the day care, or close to where their church is or their friends are," said John Shoemaker, an attorney representing the complainants. "These types of issues have to be looked at as they relate to building codes, and the cities haven't been doing that." St. Paul officials have balked at previous lawsuits suggesting that cracking down on alleged "slumlords" and owners of problem properties amounts to racism, noting that improving housing conditions should only help low-income tenants. Nevertheless, the latest complaint comes from a mixture of property owners and black activists.
St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry said she could not comment on the HUD complaint, because she had yet to receive a copy of it and she considered it pending litigation. The complaint asks HUD to withhold federal housing funds from both cities until they have submitted records proving they are in compliance with federal mandates. Those records would include an official "Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing" (AI) report, which both cities last updated in 2009. HUD recommends that cities update their AI reports every three to five years.
In recent years, St. Paul has received more than $10 million annually from HUD in federal Community Development Block Grant program, HOME and emergency-shelter grant funds. Additional millions have come in for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The complainants include Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church on Dale Street and its leader, the Rev. Sylvester Davis; former St. Paul City Council candidate and Frogtown resident Johnny Howard; nine property owners in St. Paul; and five property owners in Minneapolis. Davis has appealed code inspections to the city before. His church, which was more than a century old, was ordered demolished in 2009 because of its condition. On Feb. 3, 2010, Davis appeared before the St. Paul City Council to argue against condemnation of his rental property at 771 Fuller Ave. and to ask to be allowed to do the necessary repairs without pulling a permit and hiring a licensed contractor. His appeal was denied. "This property was approved by Section 8 (federal housing inspectors) ... and then the property was condemned," he told the council then. "I just think that is unfair. ... I cannot afford
of doing this myself."
Working phone numbers for Howard and Davis could not be located Thursday. Davis and the other complainants in the most-recent HUD complaint allege violations of the federal Fair Housing Act, the Housing and Community Development Act and the Civil Rights Act. "There's a wide range of conduct here that's clearly very problematic for the fair housing community," Shoemaker said. "You've got a thinning out of low-income rental properties. It's having an effect on how many homes are out there and where they're at, and it's also providing a disincentive to private providers and those who might want to get into owning and offering rentals." The complaint alleges that aggressive enforcement of housing codes not only discourages new landlords from renting out apartments in the city, it hurts membership at historically black churches and exceeds what's required by the federal Section 8 rental program. The complaint also notes that Minneapolis requires property owners to pull rental licenses for each property separately. If an owner loses two licenses because of code issues, all remaining licenses are revoked. In the case of complainants Ron and Julie Folger, the couple lost all 16 of their rental-housing licenses as a result of problems at two sites, thereby forcing all the tenants from the properties. Families lost housing "without any evidence of habitability concerns or other valid justification for evicting such families," reads a written statement from Shoemaker.
In another case involving property owner Spiros Zorbalas, who has not signed onto the complaint, the landlord houses up to 2,000 families in 38 Minneapolis properties. Minneapolis revoked licenses for three properties, but the city has yet to revoke his remaining licenses while his legal appeals continue. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that he was not familiar with the details in the latest HUD complaint, but that it sounded reminiscent of a series of previous lawsuits against the city, and was likely "rehashing the same old arguments." The most high-profile of those lawsuits, Magner vs. Gallagher, nearly reached the U.S. Supreme Court this year. The suit, which began as three lawsuits filed by 11 St. Paul landlords, alleges that excessive code enforcement reduces the amount of low-income housing for minorities in St. Paul. Rather than have the court hear Magner vs. Gallagher as scheduled, the city withdrew its petition late last year and the case now will be heard in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. A handful of Republican in Congress opened an inquiry this year into whether St. Paul benefited from a "quid pro quo" exchange of favors with HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice, whose top officials
A handful of Republican in Congress opened an inquiry this year into whether St. Paul benefited from a "quid pro quo" exchange of favors with HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice, whose top officials were eager to avoid having the Magner vs. Gallagher case heard by the Supreme Court. In an apparent exchange, HUD and the Justice Department declined to join two lawsuits against St. Paul. Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at