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The city of Anoka discriminated against residents with mental illness, discouraging them from requesting emergency services and placing them at risk of eviction when they call for such help, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department also proposed a consent decree that would resolve the allegations against the city if it follows certain requirements, such as depositing $175,000 to a settlement fund for individuals it harmed.

Federal prosecutors say the northern suburb has been violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act for more than five years through its rental licensing and "crime free" housing ordinance.

The city deems some calls as "nuisance" calls even if they are for medical emergencies and has told tenants with mental health disabilities that they risk eviction if they continue to make such calls, the complaint states. It says Anoka also pressured landlords to evict people over the calls for service and placed those who failed to evict residents at risk of having their rental license suspended or terminated.

"So-called 'crime-free' ordinances are often fueled by discriminatory objectives, and have the effect of destabilizing communities and promoting fear intended to drive people from their homes," said a statement from Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, with the DOJ's civil rights division. She said Anoka's program "does not protect public safety but rather risks lives by discouraging people with disabilities and their loved ones from calling for help when needed most."

City officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The consent decree and lawsuit follow a DOJ investigation into the Anoka program. Prosecutors are calling for a jury trial and seeking to block discrimination and have the city help people who were affected, including paying them damages. The suit also seeks a civil penalty for the city.

However, the consent decree would release the city from claims the DOJ made against it. A U.S. District Court judge must sign off on the agreement.

Requirements outlined in the decree include: compensating those hurt by the program, adding non-discrimination policies and procedures for complaints, designating an ADA coordinator and ending the public sharing of medical information of people with mental illness. The city would also need to let landlords and tenants know about the changes, conduct staff training and submit written reports every six months for the three years that the decree would be in effect.

More tenant protections

Meanwhile, state lawmakers approved legislation this session aimed at strengthening tenant protections across Minnesota.

The bill they passed bolsters a state law that blocks landlords from barring, limiting or penalizing tenants for calling police or emergency assistance in response to domestic abuse or any other conduct. It specifies that other conduct includes, but is not limited to, "mental health or health crises."

It also notes state law pre-empts any local ordinances that require an eviction or penalize landlords after a certain number of such calls.

"No one should ever be afraid of calling 911," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. "Heart attack, mental health crisis, feeling worried about yourself, suicidal, whatever the issue may be. You should be able to call 911 and not think, 'Oh my god, am I going to lose my housing?'"

Her organization helped push for the legislation clarifying that people should be able to call for emergency services without threat of eviction. However, she continues to be concerned that cities are sharing medical information her organization believes should be protected.

The DOJ complaint says Anoka compiled weekly "calls for service reports" at rental properties that it sent to all landlords, and the reports disclosed confidential medical information without consent, such as diagnoses, medications and suicide attempt details.

"They did it in such a purposeful manner, right? It's like, 'Oh, here's a person with a mental illness, we're going to let their landlord know,'" Abderholden said, which she said is tantamount to, "'Let's get these people out of our city.' I mean, that's basically what they were doing. And that is just so fundamentally wrong."