Tool for surveillance or discrimination?

By | March 17, 2024

A long-simmering debate over cities’ ability to regulate group homes has reached the State Capitol, as housing providers claim rental permits have become a “backdoor tool to discriminate against Minnesotans with disabilities.”

State lawmakers are considering an exemption from local regulations on rental permits for assisted living facilities and residential programs for people with disabilities that have six or fewer residents. Municipalities oppose the idea, saying it would take away an important mechanism for quickly responding to bad actors.

“This type of city government is intended to ensure that all health and safety needs can be met effectively and quickly,” said Patricia Nauman, head of Metro Cities, an association that represents municipalities in the metropolitan areas. She noted that residents of group homes are potentially the most affected by problems in a building.

Thousands of Minnesotans live in group homes run by different organizations. The small living facilities house people who need a wide range of supports to live, including people with developmental or physical disabilities, mental illness or traumatic brain injuries.

Local oversight of group homes has been in the spotlight in recent years after New Hope revoked the rental permits of two assisted living facilities that served people with disabilities, including tenants with mental health and substance use disorders.

The housing providers filed a lawsuit, claiming the city violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Their lawsuit highlighted a controversial comment from New Hope City Council member Jonathan London, who said at a meeting, “They need to realize that not everyone can live in a residential area next door.” A judge dismissed the case.

London said last week that he stands by his comment, and while he is not advocating a return to the facility, he believes some people should be in a hospital. There has been an “exploding” number of group homes in New Hope, London said, and a facility that the city closed in his community did not have staff with sufficient training to meet the needs of clients, leaving both residents of the group homes if the neighbors were in danger. .

Government officials are slow to respond to reported problems, London said, arguing that cities are closer to providers’ day-to-day operations and should retain power over rental permits.

Cases of cities revoking group home rental permits are rare in Minnesota. But providers say they worry that cities are also using the permits to keep people out of their communities.

Cities are becoming aggressive in sanctioning rental properties where there are many police calls, said Josh Berg, an Elko New Market city council member who works at Accessible Space, which houses people with disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

“In their view, it’s a drain on police, fire and community resources,” he said, noting that cities would not penalize a homeowner for having to make many emergency calls.

Assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities already undergo a robust licensing and inspection process, and the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center is the appropriate entity to address issues, not cities, Berg said.

Glenn Berland has lived for more than thirty years in a group home for four people that is managed by Accessible Space. Before that, his sister Gloria Hoffman said he was in a larger facility and often asked to move because he wanted a place where he could feel more independent.

Berland, 70, was in a car accident at age 17 that limited his mobility and ability to communicate. But he taps his feet and occasionally plays along to a Beatles song as his brother-in-law strums the guitar on the patio behind the group home, which sits at the end of a residential block in Coon Rapids.

His small room is full of Packers and Beatles decor. A large window next to his bed looks out at bird feeders his sister has placed in the front yard.

“It really is a home environment,” Hoffman said Friday during a visit with her brother. “I think everyone would want that for their family, for their loved one, or for themselves.”

Minnesota decided decades ago to move people out of institutions with the goal of allowing people to live in a homelike environment in the community of their choice, says Barb Turner of Beacon Specialized Living. Support for that philosophy has apparently shifted, she said, as group homes house people with more serious behavioral problems.

Some communities are very welcoming to group homes, she said, but if providers were to focus only on those places, it would limit where people can live and place an unfair burden on some cities.

“For me, it’s the slippery slope,” Turner said. “If every city acted like New Hope, where would we go?”

Many cities already do not require rental permits for group homes and lawmakers should make this consistent across the state, said Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, who is carrying the bill to exempt certain providers from local rental permit regulations.

“Our neighbors with disabilities, like all of us, deserve to live in a friendly neighborhood, free from discrimination and scrutiny,” said Curran, who previously worked for a nonprofit that provides group homes.

The League of Minnesota Cities opposes the bill. But Daniel Lightfoot, along with the League, suggested that the legislation could be amended so that it does not completely remove the ability of municipalities to impose permits on group homes, but makes clear that “rental permits will not have the effect of banning group homes.” .”

Trevor Turner, of the Minnesota Council on Disability, echoed that message, suggesting the bill could add a clause stating that housing providers are exempt — if they meet certain requirements. He said he doesn’t want to see discrimination, but noted that city licensing can provide an important additional layer of housing oversight, especially in greater Minnesota.

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