The Potluck

St. Louis Park repeals “crime-free/drug-free” law which gave police power to evict

By: - August 18, 2020 12:36 pm

Deputies in Virginia from the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it’s empty, watch as the owner changes the unit’s locks. Courtesy of Virginia Mercury.

The St. Louis Park City Council voted unanimously Monday to repeal a 2008 ordinance that allowed police to force landlords to evict renters for suspected criminal activity — even if they were never charged with a crime. 

“I think that we have landed in the right spot in terms of scaling back the police involvement and not having them drive this process,” St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano said during an Aug. 3 council meeting.

The City Council began reviewing the ordinance after a 2018 KSTP investigation found the police department used the crime-free/drug-free ordinance to make landlords evict more than 225 renters over a five year period, even though two-thirds were never charged with a crime. 

The law was supposed to improve public safety, according to city staff, but in dozens of cases renters were forced from their homes for having a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia — a petty misdemeanor. In other cases, people were evicted for the behavior of their guests or family members.

Reporter Kirsten Swanson spoke to Nicole Simonette, who was evicted in 2013 after her then-fiancé was charged with assaulting a police officer across the street from her apartment complex. Simonette wasn’t there during the incident, but the police ordered her landlord to terminate her lease. 

For those who are evicted, finding another rental is more difficult because evictions often stay on people’s records even when the case is settled or decided in the renter’s favor. Simonette became homeless and was staying in a shelter five years later. 

In another case, police ordered landlords— despite their objections — to evict their renters after finding a small amount of marijuana in the unit. The landlords, Michael and Deborah Javinsky-Wenzek, risked a monthly $750 fine or losing their rental license if they didn’t comply. The couple sued the city over the ordinance in 2011, leading to a change in the ordinance that allowed  landlords to appeal the eviction notice. 

Drug-free/crime-free ordinances are common in Twin Cities suburbs, including Brooklyn Park, although St. Louis Park police were notably more aggressive in its enforcement, according to the KSTP investigation. 

After the KSTP investigation aired, St. Louis Park’s City Council halted enforcing the ordinance and then created a work group to study its effectiveness and unintended consequences. The work group recommended the city repeal the ordinance earlier this year. 

In June, a suite of tenant protections took effect in Minneapolis, including an ordinance that bars landlords from considering old evictions and criminal records when screening tenants. St. Paul passed similar laws earlier this year, including a first-in-the-state law requiring landlords to have just cause when not renewing a tenant’s lease. 

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.