Landlord loses his licenses, takes Minneapolis to court over fair housing

The law for landlords in Minneapolis is pretty open-and-shut. If you get two of your rental licenses pulled for not abiding by city codes, you can't rent any properties for the next five years. It's a strict rule, but it's there for a reason, meant to protect renters from unscrupulous landlords.

The case of Ron Folger seems to fit right in. He first lost a license when his renter was caught dealing drugs, and he didn't come up the required plan to tell the city how he would fix it. The next time, his group didn't allow a problem-ridden property to be inspected. That was it: two strikes and you're out. He couldn't rent those properties, or his 17 others, for the next five years.

See also: In the Twin Cities, you need to make $30,000 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, study says

But Folger isn't going quietly. Instead, he's changing the conversation and accusing the city's ordinances of discriminating against minorities. The new laws, he says, are leaving his renters, most of whom are low-income and minority residents, out in the cold.

Folger says in his original complaint filed back in December that while inspectors from the Section 8 low-income housing program found his properties "safe, decent, and sanitary," he's still been targeted by the city's programs, while other city-sponsored programs don't face the same scrutiny.

The program may look "facially neutral," the complaint says, but it's actually hurting minority and low-income renters by targeting landlords like him. It's an argument he and other landlords have been making for the past few years, to little success so far.

But Folger will finally get his say in court, as a U.S. District Court judge agreed to hear the argument last week.

From the city's perspective, they're just following ordinances. Nobody wants to see low-income people without a home.

"But if the alternative is to allow landlords to operate properties in a substandard way, we need to protect the general public, which includes the tenants, and the neighborhood," said Janine Atchinson, the city's district manager for housing inspection services, to the Strib back in 2011, when Folger first lost his licenses.

That's the trickiest part of low-income housing. There are only so many subsidized rentals in the Twin Cities, but a lot of people want them. So if a low-income housing landlord gets busted and loses his rental license, it leaves residents without a home and few options to find a new place. The state has repeatedly said it's done its best to find new homes for low-income renters who get thrown out on the street, but there's only so much to be done.

Eric Hauge, a tenant organizer with the tenant advocacy group HOME Line, says that environment makes dealing with landlords especially complicated.

"That's part of the problem," says Hauge. "Because there is a lack of affordable housing in general. And landlords like Folger and others are selling at a lower rate. And they really market to a certain group of folks, that's all that's available to them. But at the same time, there need to be minimum housing standards available."

But Hauge says just because there isn't that much affordable housing doesn't mean landlords like Folger can be lax and ignore the rules. They know the consequences. If they don't follow them, they're not just putting themselves at risk, but their tenants, too.

"I think an argument could be made that he's violating these laws, too," Hauge says. "It's just as much his obligation to have the right conditions."

It's a catch-22, with low-income renters getting screwed either way.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.

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