Anoka, Minnesota – The Minneapolis suburb of Anoka sits where Minnesota’s 150-mile Rum River meanders into the Mississippi River. Like other communities, it bills itself as a pleasant and peaceful place to live.
But last year, a federal investigation found Anoka illegally discriminated against residents with mental health disabilities, saying the city submitted weekly reports to landlords for five years that disclosed the personal medical information of tenants who received multiple emergency calls.
In at least 780 cases, the city also shared details about mental health crises and even how people attempted suicide, all in the name of enforcing an ordinance designed to deter crime and eliminate public nuisances, the Justice Department said. Pretense.
Laws like Anoka’s are among hundreds enacted in the United States since the 1990s and have long been criticized for unfairly targeting poorer communities and communities of color. Now, they are under scrutiny as a source of mental health discrimination.
“It’s horrific,” said Elizabeth Sauer, an attorney with Central Minnesota Legal Services, which serves low-income people. “Can you imagine broadcasting the most intimate details of your life to every landlord in the city where you live?”
Anoka’s “crime-free” ordinance was enacted in 2016, and city council members said at the time they were fighting crime and making the community safer. Jeff Weaver, who remains a member of the council and did not respond to a request for comment, described the problem at the time as “a few dirty landlords.”
“It’s like a cancer in these communities,” he said at the 2016 meeting played in an online video.
According to FBI statistics, Anoka’s reported crime rate dropped 57% from 2016 to 2022, although crime had been declining before then. The city’s annual financial report shows that by 2022, the police enforcement team will have seven full-time employees, or 16% of its staffing.
Anoka’s ordinance requires, among other things, landlords to screen potential tenants, respond to resident complaints and take property management classes. The city would allow the city to suspend a landlord’s rental license if police respond to four or more “nuisance” calls in a year. Before then, landlords could be fined up to $500.
The statute states that nuisance calls involve “disturbing conduct,” such as criminal activity and conduct endangering others. It also covers “unfounded calls to the police” and permits “physically aggressive behaviour” but does not define these further, allowing for wide discretion.
According to the Justice Department, Anoka used this discretion to provide the landlord with detailed information about the adults and children involved in the emergency call, their diagnoses, medications and the names of individual medical and psychiatric providers.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called Anoka’s ordinance “pretty radical” and said first responders are less likely to respond if a tenant suffers a heart attack or other medical emergency. It may be said that the tenant seeks services. One time is too many. “
“Why would we do this when someone has a mental health issue?” she said.
Anoka, Minnesota has had a psychiatric hospital for more than 100 years. Anoka Metropolitan Treatment Center is its largest hospital with 110 beds.
Federal fair housing laws prohibit landlords from asking someone if they have a disability, including a mental health disability, or refusing to rent to them on that basis. Minnesota law, meanwhile, prohibits landlords from limiting or blocking calls to emergency services and preempts local ordinances that penalize landlords for such calls.
But many non-criminal ordinances, like the one in Anoka, direct landlords to screen rental applicants, sometimes leaving it up to officials who decide whether an emergency call would be detrimental to them or the tenant.
Following the investigation, the Justice Department directed Anoka to amend its ordinance and exclude all medical or disability-related information about individuals from its reports, which the city is working to do. Public records show City Council members met with the city’s private attorney Scott Baumgartner in executive session last month to discuss a “draft remediation agreement,” but no further details were provided.
Baumgartner confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that the city is “discussing a resolution” with the Department of Justice but said he could not discuss the resolution further “until a final resolution.”