By: Katelyn Vue
The city passed an ordinance in 2017 to prohibit landlords from treating Section 8 renters differently, but legal fights prevented it from taking effect until last December.
The city of Minneapolis recently began enforcing an ordinance that prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters who use government-issued Section 8 vouchers under an ordinance that passed five years ago.
City officials are educating renters about the ordinance to encourage them to file complaints when necessary. Eight complaints have been filed by Minneapolis renters so far, said Kaela McConnon Diarra, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Complaint Investigation Division.*
The ordinance is intended to protect low-income families vulnerable to discrimination against landlords who deny them housing or treat them differently for relying on Section 8 vouchers, which are used to partially cover rental expenses. The federal government provides rental subsidies that the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority administers to renters in different forms, including Section 8 vouchers.
“When you look at the passage of the ordinance, it was because people were having a really hard time placing these Section 8 vouchers, which can be so useful for low income people,” said attorney Elana Dahlager. “It’s such an important way for people to be able to attain and retain housing.”
Dahlager is the housing assistant supervising attorney at the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income people.
Although the Minnesota Department of Human Rights prohibits and investigates discrimination against public assistance, such as social security benefits, in housing, state laws do not protect renters who use Section 8 vouchers.
“The Minneapolis ordinance is different in that it is explicitly saying that to deny someone solely on the basis of the fact that they get the Section 8 voucher is discriminatory,” Dahlager said. “In Minneapolis, I think that that’s a major form of discrimination.”
Nearly 86 percent of tenants who rely on Section 8 vouchers in Minneapolis are Black or African American, according to the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which administers the vouchers. Half of those tenants are children.
‘File at the onset’
The Minneapolis City Council voted in 2017 to pass the ordinance that prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters who use public assistance, including Section 8 vouchers, to cover housing costs. According to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, 17 states across the country prohibit landlords from discriminating against public assistance, including Section 8 vouchers.
The ordinance prohibits landlords from rejecting renters because they use Section 8, and also requires them to provide all tenants the same amenities and services regardless of how they pay their rent.
“If the landlord has a building and all the people who receive benefits of some kind are located on a lower floor than people on the higher floors—I think all of those things are things that are worth investigating, potentially,” Dahlager said.
But shortly after the ordinance passed, a group of landlords sued the city, arguing that it was unconstitutional. As a result, the district court ordered that city officials had to pause enforcing the ordinance.
After more legal fights, the district court lifted its order in December 2022, allowing the city to enforce the ordinance. However, the landlords’ lawsuit against the city is active before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The hope is that the city can defeat the lawsuit and continue to enforce the ordinance, said McConnon Diarra.
In addition to McConnon Diarra, the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department has three investigators that look into discrimination complaints and two intake officers as full-time staff.
While not all cases of discrimination are obvious, Dahlager said she encourages renters to file complaints when they think they’ve been discriminated against so investigators can conduct tests, look for patterns with landlords, and seek evidence.
McConnon Diarra said renters who suspect that they have been discriminated against because of Section 8 vouchers should “file at the onset.” She added that sometimes landlords will advertise that they do not accept Section 8 vouchers, which is direct evidence of discrimination.
In other cases, evidence is not as easy to find. McConnon Diarra said that in such cases, she suggests that renters document as much as possible by writing down notes about the incident that include the date, time, who was present, and what was said.
“Even if it’s something that happens in a more oral conversation, make sure you really write that up, right then and there for yourself,” she said. “It’s also really good to do that while your memory is still fresh about the interaction and you can most accurately report what happened.”
She said it’s also helpful to gather witnesses who can support the complaint, and to provide their contact information along with the complaint.
The Minneapolis Civil Rights Department cannot enforce the ordinance if the alleged discrimination happened more than a year from the reporting date, or if it occurred outside Minneapolis. Without statewide protection, many families are left vulnerable to discrimination, said housing advocates.
Attorney Larry McDonough, who has nearly four decades of experience with housing laws, said it’s very common for families who rely on Section 8 vouchers to be denied housing or to be treated differently.
Several housing organizations worked together this year to try to pass a statewide law banning discrimination against Section 8 vouchers, but didn’t succeed. McDonough, a policy attorney at HOMELine, a nonprofit that provides free and low-cost organizing, education, and advocacy services to renters, said they’ll work together again next year to pass the same legislation.
“The more that this law is enforced, the more compliance you’re going to see, and that’s going to increase the number of landlords who are participating in the program,” he said. “And it’s going to make it easier for tenants to place their vouchers in the timeframe that they have.”
Dahlager said she represented a client who had a “fairly common” experience. The client claims that her landlord did not fulfill requirements and miscommunicated with the Section 8 provider to ensure that the client’s subsidy would cover rent. Instead, her landlord filed an eviction against the client for nonpayment.
Her client filed a complaint against her landlord citing the city’s ordinance, and claimed that she was treated unfairly for relying on a Section 8 voucher.
“She felt like she was being treated poorly and differently on the basis of the fact that she was receiving housing benefits,” Dahlager said. “And she felt like she wanted to make this complaint, I think primarily to see if she could affect change that would also help other people in her situation.”
Resolving a discrimination complaint can take some time, said McConnon Diarra, adding that the time frame depends on the case. Potential outcomes in an investigation include a monetary settlement, making the landlord commit to new anti-discrimination practices, and allowing the complainant to rent the housing unit that they were denied.