Civil Liberties Group Sues City over Property Rights of Minnesotan Serving in Afghanistan

The Minnesota chapter of a national civil liberties legal group is going to court to fight for the property rights of a Winona man who’s got other battles on his hands: He’s currently serving as a U.S. advisor in war-torn Afghanistan. The Institute for Justice (IJ) will ask a Minnesota District Court in Winona to strike down a city ordinance prohibiting Ethan Dean, now on his fifth tour of duty in the Mideast, and three other homeowners from renting out their property.

“This is a law that started in Winona and has spread to other cities in Minnesota and what we need to do is stop this trend before it goes any further,” said Anthony Sanders, staff attorney with IJ’s Minnesota chapter. “The right to rent out your home is a fundamental property right, a traditional and accepted use of your property and Winona is trampling on that.”

The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota reported earlier this year on Dean’s campaign on the home front against the controversial Winona ordinance known locally as the “30 percent rule.” Dean says the ordinance is a double whammy. By restricting rental properties to only 30 percent of houses per block, it deprives homeowners of rental income. Without a rental permit, houses are also less appealing to prospective buyers. Dean says the ordinance has cost him more than one opportunity to sell his $139,000 house, located in a prime rental area in this college town.

“I don’t really understand how someone believes they have the right to tell someone else how and what they can do with their home, but it is a strange world at times, I guess,” Dean told FFM at the time. City officials view the measure as a way to preserve the single family character of city neighborhoods particularly near Winona State University by regulating the number of houses rented mainly to college students. Complaints over student parties, vandalism and absentee landlords led to the imposition of the ordinance in 2005.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s working right now and it’s helping to address our problem of density of rental properties around the downtown core area and Winona State,” city council member Debbie White told FFM earlier this year. “We’ve been losing residences and homes and trying to keep a balance in our neighborhoods.”

According to the Winona Housing Association, investment and management of certified rental property is the city’s largest private industry, involving more than 900 individuals and families. The Institute for Justice estimates the rental ban affects hundreds more Winona homeowners. Seven of the nine properties on Ethan Dean’s block were grandfathered in when the ordinance took effect. Until he put his house up for sale, however, Dean said he had never heard of the ordinance. Concerned about paying his mortgage while stationed overseas, Dean rented it out to three students in violation of the ordinance. After learning Dean was working with U.S. troops abroad, the city granted him a waiver for a permit that will expire next spring. Another homeowner who’s involved in the lawsuit also has a temporary rental permit. Both say they face probable foreclosure under the city’s rental ban.

The Institute of Justice legal team is asking that the ordinance be declared an illegal use of the city’s zoning power and unconstitutional under the Minnesota constitution. Attorneys filing the case say it may have implications nationally because it addresses the fundamental constitutional issue of whether government may reign in some citizens’ property rights but not others.

“Rental restrictions of various kinds are common across the country and have become more and more common. But Minnesota is ground zero in this trend of completely taking away people’s right to rent out their homes. All eyes of policy makers and property rights advocates will be on Minnesota with this case,” said Sanders.

The Institute for Justice describes itself as “the nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm, we engage in cutting-edge litigation and advocacy both in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion on behalf of individuals whose most basic rights are denied by the government–like the right to earn an honest living, private property rights, and the right to free speech, especially in the areas of commercial and Internet speech.”


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