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In fight against discrimination, Fargo city commissioners to consider a building registry

FARGO -- A city commissioner here will soon propose that Fargo consider banning housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Melissa Sobolik said she will test the waters at the Oct. 28 commission meeting to see if fellow commissioners would approve establishing a building registry, which could require those who rent out housing units in the city to adhere to certain codes and policies.

Such a registry exists in Grand Forks, where city leaders recently passed a law that bars most rental housing owners from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tenants.

Grand Forks is thought to be the first city in the state to pass such a law.

Grand Forks was able to pass a ban because of its building registry, said Jason Loos, Fargo's assistant city attorney. Moorhead, Minn., also has a building registry, which has been "more of a code enforcement tool," Loos said.

All five Fargo city commissioners said they would support studying how a registry system would work in Fargo.

"If that's what it takes," Commissioner Mike Williams said. "We should look at all the avenues. If there's roadblocks for us to move further to ensure equality, then let's remove them."

Commissioner Brad Wimmer said a registry could have many benefits besides preventing discrimination, such as helping the city do a better job of enforcing building codes.

"But I'd want to talk to landlords big and small throughout the city," Wimmer said. "I don't want to get them buried in paperwork."

Commissioner Tim Mahoney said he'd be "happy" to look into setting up a registry, noting that inclusive policies attract people to both live and work in the city.

"I think we'd be very much in favor of whatever will help make us a more welcoming community so we had more people move into the community and work," Mahoney said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker maintained a position he took months ago when Sobolik first brought the topic to the commission, that discrimination against LGBT residents isn't a big issue in Fargo.

"I don't get a lot of complaints," Walaker said Thursday.

The mayor said he would have to see "significant research" on how the registry works in Grand Forks. One question he had was if the registry would be retroactive and apply to established rental properties.

"I would support it if it was done in a manner that works in another community," Walaker said.

Loos said Fargo has previously looked into establishing building registries and that such systems are not uncommon throughout the country.

In Grand Forks, if a property owner is found in violation of the law, the council can deny, revoke, suspend or refuse to renew his or her rental license and certificate of occupancy. The law doesn't apply to churches, religious housing, single-family homes or apartments with up to four units in which the owner resides.

For now, a resolution

Sobolik has pushed for a law banning housing discrimination against LGBT residents for several months, after the North Dakota Legislature failed to pass such a law in the last session. She maintains that it's a serious issue in Fargo.

In July, Fargo commissioners directed the city attorney's office to look into what would legally be possible, and after months of studying, Loos said it would be difficult to make any sort of enforceable law that prevents housing discrimination without a building registry.

For now, Loos and Sobolik are crafting a resolution that states the city of Fargo doesn't condone discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Sobolik said.

A resolution is only a statement of principle and doesn't provide for enforcement, Loos said.

While Sobolik said earlier this year that she wanted the city to have some teeth in enforcing these discrimination bans, she said Thursday a resolution is all she feels the city can do at this time.

"We've taken a few months to look at all of the laws that were out there, to see what we had the authority to do as a city, and there really isn't anything at this point," Sobolik said, "until we either get the registry in place or the state takes some action and makes sexual orientation a protected class."

Sobolik will present the resolution to the commission Oct. 28 before asking her colleagues to consider a building registry.

She said she would approach the subject carefully because she was told that a building registry was discussed but ultimately tossed aside by a previous commission several years ago.

Sobolik's resolution will also ask the commission to add "gender identity" to the city's human resources policy, which already prevents the city as an employer from discriminating against employees or potential employees based sex, race, color, religion and sexual orientation.