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

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

“This type of city authority is intended to ensure that any health and safety needs can be addressed effectively and promptly,” said Patricia Nauman, who leads Metro Cities, an association representing metro area municipalities. She noted group home residents are potentially most affected by issues at a property.

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Thousands of Minnesotans live in group homes operated by various organizations. The small residential 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 the city of New Hope revoked the rental permits of two assisted living facilities that served people with disabilities, including tenants who had mental health and substance use disorders.

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

London said that he stands by his comment, and while he isn’t advocating for a return to institutionalization he believes some people need to be in a hospital. There has been an “exploding” number of group homes in New Hope, London said, and a facility the council shut down in his community did not have staff with sufficient training to meet clients’ needs, putting both group home residents and neighbors in danger.

State officials are slow to respond to reported problems, London said, and he contended cities are closer to the daily operations of providers and should retain power over the rental licenses.

Instances of cities revoking a group home rental license are rare in Minnesota. But providers said they are worried cities are also wielding the licenses to keep people out of their communities.

Cities are getting aggressive in punishing rental properties where there are a lot of 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 opinion it’s a drain on the police and the fire and the resources of the community,” he said, noting cities would not penalize a homeowner who needed to make a lot of 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 handle concerns, not cities, Berg said.

Glenn Berland has lived in a four-person group home operated by Accessible Space for more than 30 years. Before that, his sister Gloria Hoffman said he was in a larger institution and would often ask to move out, wishing for a place where he could feel more independent.

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

His small room brims with Packers and Beatles decor. A big window by his bed looks out at bird feeders his sister placed in the front yard.

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

Minnesota decided decades ago to shift people out of institutions with the goal of having people live in home-like settings in the community of their choice, said Barb Turner, with Beacon Specialized Living. Support for that philosophy seemingly has shifted, she said, as group homes are housing people with more serious behavioral challenges.

Some communities are very welcoming to group homes, she said, but if providers just gravitate toward those places it would limit where people can live and unfairly burden some cities.

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

Many cities already do not require rental licensing for group homes and lawmakers should make that consistent across the state, said Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, who is the carrying the bill to exempt certain providers from local rental licensing 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, with the League, suggested the legislation could be tweaked so that it doesn’t completely remove municipalities’ ability to impose the licenses on group homes, but makes it clear that “rental licensing shall not have the effect of prohibiting group homes.”

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

© 2024 Star Tribune
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