Letter to Lee McGrath of the Institute for Justice

December 19 , 2005

Lee McGrath
Institute for Justice, Minnesota Chapter
1600 Rand Tower
527 Marquette Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Dear Lee:

I am a member of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. I wrote you recently about proposed changes to the rental-license ordinance that would make it easier for the city to condemn rental properties for tenant misconduct.

I attended the committee hearing of the Minneapolis City Council last Wednesday and was given a copy of the amendments. A photocopy is enclosed. I should say that the Council members made several changes to soften the impact somewhat - the 18 month period applies to buildings with 6 units or less, the posting requirement has been eliminated, etc.

Still, the rental license ordinance puts private landlords in the position of being required to do police work or lose their rental license and, therefore, the ability to derive any income from their property. The city police become judges of the police work of others without being required to do adequate policing themselves.

At the hearing, I called attention to paragraph 389.65 (c)(1)(a) on page 8 which states: “The premises at which a noisy or unruly assembly occurs shall additional be subject to a notice of noisy or unruly and assembly and to the potential imposition of administrative special security costs ..” What happens, I asked, if the “unruly assembly” occurs on the city streets as so often happens in my neighborhood? Would the owners of those streets - the city or the county - be subject to the special security costs? There was no answer.

With respect to the “notice of unruly assembly”, I called attention to the passage in 389.65 (c)(1)(a)(1) which reads on page 9: “The notice shall direct the owner, rental license holder or landlord to take steps to ensure that the premises are not used for additional noisy or unruly assemblies.”

This, I argued, was physically and legally impossible. Landlords cannot “ensure” that tenants will no longer misbehave. I suggested facetiously that the city pass an ordinance requiring that Minneapolis police officers “ensure” that no further criminal activity will take place in the city.

There is an important principle at stake. Can a city shift the burden of police work to private parties without deputizing them or giving them any resources or training to do the job? How can standards be set for required police work by landlords if the city police themselves have no standards of performance which they are legally obliged to follow? We cannot sue the city if the police fail to protect us from crime. But they propose to fine us or revoke our rental licenses if we fail to solve crime in our buildings.

The city of Minneapolis has long tried to crack down on so-called “crack houses”, holding their owners responsible for activities by tenants, even as drug dealing flourishes on city streets with the full knowledge of the city police.

About five years ago, two landlords belong to Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee embarassed the city by conducting “crack tours” in south Minnneapolis. These landlords would drive a mini van through the streets of a drug-infested neighborhood posing as individuals who wanted to buy crack cocaine. In the back seat would be an invited government official. Invariably they found persons on the street willing to sell them crack cocaine. They would negotiate price and then back out of the deal. The back-seat passengers would see everything.

The obvious lesson was that the city police were doing little about the drug problem. There was a flourishing market for cocaine right out there on the streets even as the city was cracking down on drug activity in buildings owned by private landlords. More than twenty-five such tours took place.

The relationship between crime and private businesses such as renting housing space is a legitimate one. Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee prepared a written list of suggestions on how to improve cooperation between landlords and the police. There has been no interest by city officials in following up on the proposed discussion. Instead, they want to continue hammering us with penalties if we do not solve the crime problem on our own.

I am suggesting that this ordinance and the approach it illustrates might be a good area to litigate. There is ample evidence to nail the city on its negligence regarding police work. But the basic principle is that city government has a legal requirement to do police work and should not be allowed to pass ordinances palming this work off on someone else.

My impression is that this practice is not confined to Minneapolis though it may be practiced here to a greater degree than elsewhere in the nation.

Best wishes.


William McGaughey


Note: The Minneapolis City Council was considering amendments to title 15, Chapter 389, of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, which, in part, read:

"(c) The following acts are violations of this section, subject to enforcement through crimiinal, civil and administrative means ...

(1) Noisy or unruly assembly. Participating in, conducting, visiting, or remaining at a garthering, knowing or haveing reason to know that the gathering is a noisy or unruly assembly ..

(a) The premises at which a noisy or unruly assemply occurs shall additionally be subject to the notice of noisy or unruly assembly and to the potential imposition of administrative special security costs as further described in this section.

(b) A notice of noisy or unruly assembly shall be sent within ten business days via first class mail to the owner and/or rental license holder of record of any premises at which a noisy or unruly assemply is determined to have taken place by the Minneapolis Police Department ...

1. Each notice of noisy or unruly assembly shall state that a noisy or unruly assembly has occurred on the premises; the date, time, and nature of the noisy or unruly assembly; and that the owner, rental license holder or landlord may be issued an administrative citation and be held directly and vicariously liable for any special security costs expended during subsequent responses to the premises for additional noisy or unruly assemblies within 180 days ... The notice shall direct the owner, rental license holder or landlord to take steps to ensure that the premises are not used for additional noisy or unruly assemblies."

Explanation: Some loud parties took place near the University of Minnesota campus and neighbors complained. The officious City Council representative then introduced this city-wide ordinance to hold landlords reponsible for tolerating the parties. Keep in mind that during the same period there was rising violence on the streets of Minneapolis including many murders. The city turned a blind eye to its own, much more serious negligence.

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