On Friday, Sept. 13, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed an ordinance preventing landlords from considering evictions and misdemeanors older than three years, including credit history, as a basis for denying a rental application. Minneapolis joined Seattle and only a handful of other cities around the country with strict resident-screening laws.
As recently as 2018, a Washington court found that an earlier ordinance merely requiring that landlords establish rental-qualifying criteria for all applicants and accept the first qualified applicant was unconstitutional and did not meet the goal of preventing discrimination while also preserving the rights of business owners to conduct equitable transactions.
Seattle and Minneapolis are doubling down on a high-stakes legal and economic game of “chicken” by passing enhanced laws aimed at regulating the tenant-screening process.
It’s no secret that prospective tenants are having difficulty finding housing. Across the country, renting has become more convenient and more desirable to new generations of Americans who are unenthusiastic about the arduous and often-expensive realities of homeownership. This has created high demands for rental housing spanning economic, racial, and ethnic lines.
No language in these ordinances specifically addresses discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Instead, the language assumes these groups have low credit scores, criminal records, and evictions and would be well-served by city ordinances that prevent landlords from using those criteria as a basis for making application decisions.
By stripping a landlord’s ability to use publicly available records, Minneapolis is challenging the constitutional rights of every landlord to access those public records.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed several lawsuits against the city of Seattle, the first merely days after the passage of its rental-screening ordinances. A robust legal ecosystem has long existed around transactional freedom and private-property ownership. It’s practically the backbone of American law. As a result, Seattle will likely continue to fail in court, as will Minneapolis and other cities which take up such ordinances. It will cost taxpayers millions that otherwise could go toward subsidizing affordable housing or community efforts to bridge the gap between local landlords and rental prospects with challenging application attributes.
It’s common sense and good business for landlords to accept as many applicants as economically responsible. Why would anyone want their rental unit to be empty? It is also common sense that an eviction is reason to believe that accepting a prospect is bad business. Evictions are time-consuming and costly for landlords.
The solution? Pay your landlord or resolve disputes with them before going to court. The judicial process affords ample opportunity for the resolution of tenant-landlord disagreements before an eviction is finalized. Who knows, maybe it’s even possible that some landlords are willing to support the expungement efforts of a former tenant if they simply get paid what they are owed?
Screening laws like in Seattle and Minneapolis also hurt prospects by guaranteeing they get denied if they fall within the narrow and arbitrary legal limitations afforded by these ordinances. Even if you have had a clean record for 30-plus years but made one misdemeanor mistake “two years ago,” under the new Minneapolis ordinance, you would be practically guaranteed denial of your rental application because now your denial is “government-backed.”
Duluth should steer clear of legally burdensome policymaking and focus instead on bringing local landlords and those seeking affordable housing together. Duluth should also refocus its own development aspirations by rewarding, not burdening, those who supply the affordable housing in Duluth: small, local property-management outfits with investments in older but safe and updated housing.
Randy J. Bender of Superior is a landlord in Duluth and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where his studies included constitutional-law research.