To maintain St. Paul’s neighborhoods, the city stepped up its housing enforcement and targeted landlords with a history of violations.
What St. Paul got in return was three federal lawsuits and intense legal backlash. The city found itself at odds with not just a dozen landlords but also 49 of their unlikely allies: the NAACP, housing advocates, the ACLU and other groups that typically advocate for minorities and the poor.
As the lawsuits – Magner vs. Gallagher – rose toward the U.S. Supreme Court, more than a dozen state attorneys general argued in written briefs that St. Paul was going down a path that could inadvertently gut the federal Fair Housing Act.
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court would side with St. Paul, housing advocates feared. And as a result, protections for minorities could come crashing down, making future housing, lending and even employment discrimination suits almost impossible to win.
Then came the call from the U.S. Justice Department – in other words, the Obama administration – asking the city to back off. Even Walter Mondale, author of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, reached out to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman last week.
“I had a long talk with the mayor, who I think showed a lot of courage here,” Mondale said.
On Friday, St. Paul blinked.
A federal judge had previously sided with the city on the case, throwing out most of the landlords’ claims, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the issue of the loss of affordable housing and its “disparate impact” on minorities – an alleged violation of the federal Fair Housing Act – back to the lower court.