Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Odd Bedfellows

It seems clear enough: the government should need a warrant, based on probable cause, before it can enter a private residence.

But that's when the reason for entry is a possible crime. What about inspections of rental housing, when it's really the landlord who's being inspected, rather than the occupant?

Those are the questions that find some odd bedfellows in a current Minnesota Supreme Court case. It's led by the Virginia-based, Koch-funded Institute for Justice, and joined by other libertarian or right-wing groups like the Cato Institute and our own local Center of the American Experiment — but also by the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the Minnesota ACLU.

I can see the EFF/ACLU's interest, because the 4th Amendment is important to all of us. But I also wonder if they've read Matt Desmond's book Evicted.

Restricting inspections to times when a complaint is filed means inspections only happen in housing where the tenants have perfect credit, are documented residents or citizens, have no eviction history, and have never made a late payment. That's because tenants with any of those problems fear their landlords will evict them if they file a complaint with the city. Retaliation like that is not legal, of course, but if the tenant has made late payments, it doesn't count as retaliation. If tenants have been evicted in the past or have bad credit, they know it will be hard for them to find another place, and if they do, it will likely be an even worse place. And undocumented people are likely to take what they can get and not complain, just to keep their heads down.

What's the more likely scenario: that the city will use building inspections to snoop on renters' way of life inappropriately, or that landlords will exploit low-income renters even more than they already do, once they know the city's not coming to inspect?

Which side of the case do groups like the Minnesota Tenants Union or Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia come down on?

I can guess. I'll bet they agree with the attorney for Home Line, a tenant advocacy group, who's quoted in the Star Tribune story:

[Mikkelson] said the routine inspections protect renters, who may not know they can call the city about code violations or fear retaliation from a landlord for reporting problems.

“We’ve seen … landlords writing in their leases, ‘If you call the city inspector or allow a city inspector in, I’ll fine you or you’ll be evicted,’ ” Mikkelson said.
The ACLU-Minnesota amicus brief is on their website. I agree with their calls to restrict inspections to only housing standards, and not to involve police who might snoop for illegal activity by the tenants. But their remedies for tenants who need protection from their landlords are not enough. They suggest tenants could be protected by passing laws to keep landlords from retaliating — which is already prohibited, in theory. They also call on cities to fund tenant hotlines and tenants' unions. It's odd how the existing tenants' unions disagree with the ACLU on this suit in the first place, though.

Maybe the tenants' unions aren't able to recognize their own best interest, when balancing the desire for privacy and the need for safe housing. Or maybe they just know landlords better than the ACLU does.


Writing about this question makes me wonder: Is the 4th Amendment about private property or private residences? The wording of the amendment is "houses" and "effects." Which sounds like it pertains to residences, so the landlords should really have no say in this case in the first place. 

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