The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
December 8, 2021

Crime-Free Housing Ordinances

Adequate housing is a basic human right, yet there are many barriers to housing in the United States. The PBEye has been following the development of laws and policies that create or ease barriers to housing, including the response to growing housing insecurity during the pandemic, the impact of the end of the national eviction moratorium, the decriminalization of homelessness through the establishment of homeless courts, and the movement to secure a right to counsel for tenants in housing court. In this latest article, we look at the impact of crime-free housing ordinances.

Crime-free housing ordinances vary widely state to state and within county and city jurisdictions, but generally bar renters’ housing access based on issues like prior criminal history and bad credit. These ordinances’ purported purpose is to provide protection for both landlords and tenants from potential criminal activity in their community. However, due to their wide variation of standards, the ordinances are easily weaponized against the recently or previously incarcerated, communities of color, the disabled community, survivors of and those living with domestic violence, and other vulnerable peoples. 

For example, on June 1, 2020, a novel barrier-reducing ordinance took effect in Minneapolis, MN. This ordinance limited the criminal history and other “offenses” that landlords could consider when screening perspective renters. Following its passage, landlords could no longer screen potential renters for misdemeanors older than three years, felonies older than ten years, violent felonies older than ten years, evictions older than three years, lack of rental history, or poor credit history. 

The protections, primarily focused on removing barriers to housing for low-income populations and people of color, have been lauded by members of these communities and housing rights activists. Landlords, however, sued the city to ask that the policy be halted as further court proceedings on its constitutionality take place. The trial court denied the landlords’ request for a preliminary injunction and that decision is currently on appeal in the Eighth Circuit. In May of 2021, the Pro Bono Institute as part of the Minnesota Collaborative Justice Project, and several public interest organizations that advocate for Minnesotans facing housing instability, filed an amici brief supporting the City of Minneapolis on appeal, which is pending.

Many vulnerable communities are disproportionately harmed by crime-free housing and nuisance ordinances. Three communities that are the most affected are communities of color, survivors of and those experiencing domestic violence, and disabled persons. 

Learn more about how crime-free housing and nuisance ordinances impact vulnerable communities and how pro bono lawyers can help in this paper: The Impact of Crime-Free Housing and Nuisance Ordinances, and What Pro Bono Lawyers Can Do.

Thank you to PBI law clerks Emma Matters and Jessica Choate for their help in researching and drafting this article.