As first-term state Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-62A) sees it, her most important job is to fight on behalf of tenants against landlords who exploit them.
Her district is about 83% renters and when she campaigned for office in 2018, she heard from future constituents that they were worried about their cost of rent, their lack of rights and the frequency of evictions in their neighborhoods.
A mental health clinician, Hassan has worked as an affordable housing advocate for Project for Pride in Living and founded Pathways 2 Prosperity, a Ventura Village organization that aims to close systemic gaps in mental health services for immigrant communities by educating community members and training providers.
When Hassan arrived in St. Paul, one of the first things she did was reach out to the tenant advocacy nonprofit HOME Line and ask for the organization’s list of legislative priorities. “I said, ‘Give me the most radical ones, because that’s what my district needs,’” Hassan said. “I’m from a very progressive district and also a very poor district.”
This session she carried a bill to automatically expunge evictions after three years and a bill requiring landlords to give tenants a two-week written notice before eviction. Neither bill gained traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
She said she wanted to propose a bill banning evictions of families during the school year but was advised against it. “You can’t pass a law that says people don’t have to pay rent because landlords will take it to court and fight about this,” she said. “I’m still trying to find a way to ensure that at least you try every option before you evict a family with a child in school.”
Hassan, who was an assistant majority leader in the House, reflected on her first session and discussed plans for the 2020 session during an interview with the Southwest Journal. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What are you proud of from your first session?
I’m super proud of the legislation I carried to educate people about skin lightening.
There is a lot of extensive research about people from communities of color — women specifically — who are using these creams to lighten their skin. These creams have high mercury levels — higher than what’s safe for the U.S. — and most of these creams are imported from different parts of the world like Asia and Africa. Women will use these creams while they’re pregnant and while they’re nursing babies.
I wrote legislation to create a public health awareness campaign about this issue. How can we make sure different communities get this information in their own languages? The creams you’re putting on your body is what’s poisoning your children. Hopefully, we’ll see billboards and signs that talk about this issue somewhere soon.
What have been your priorities besides housing?
Economic development and jobs are a big priority. A lot of times, Minnesota employers say we need more workforce. We have a very low unemployment rate as a state, but when you look at different communities, that breakdown looks different. How do we make sure that people are connected with the jobs that are available? How do you make sure there are opportunities for people who want to found their own business? I was a co-author on an equity bill, trying to boost funding for communities of color and indigenous communities. I also carried a funding bill for Avivo, an organization that does job training for people with chemical health and medical struggles.
A third priority for me was education. Minnesota has one of the worst education systems for black, brown and indigenous kids. We need to be trauma-informed and we need to train more teachers to learn about implicit bias and explicit bias. We need to address systemic racism and remove barriers to make sure kids are achieving at their own capacity. I plan to look at how we connect housing and education because the two are interconnected.
Your bill to expunge eviction judgments from court records after three years passed the House but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. What is your plan for addressing the issue next session?
We had people who came and testified that they were battling in court an eviction from the year 2000. This was why they couldn’t get housing. I thought, “That’s 19 years ago; this shouldn’t be the case.”
If you want your bills to pass, you have to spend some time in the Senate and create relationships. One of the things I plan to do is try to get more people to buy into it. I’ve learned that there are a lot of landlords who are lawmakers. People said we were protecting bad character and we’re going to create chaos.
I need to sit down with Sen. Kari Dziedzic [(DFL-60), who sponsored the Senate version of the expungement bill] and see who we need to recruit, who we need to talk to, whose office we need to spend time in — I’ll go out to lunch if I have to! — to get support from the Senate.
What were the big things you learned as a new legislator? After years of working as a community activist and organizer, how have you had to adjust your frame of mind or your worldview now that you hold a position of power?
I had an adjustment period that I’m not an activist anymore. I’m an advocate and a policymaker, and I had to leave the activism to the activists. Intent is good, but it’s not enough. You have to worry about how your policies are going to impact people’s lives.
I learned that it’s hard work, and that it’s about relationships. Do you care about this enough to cross the aisle and talk to people with different views? We have a divided government, so it’s give and take. What can you give to the senators and what can you take from them? The DFL caucus didn’t want the provider tax to sunset and we had to give up a lot more than we wanted so we could save the tax and make sure that 1 million people wouldn’t lose health care coverage.
You’re a member of a statewide working group on police use of deadly force. Why is such a group necessary and what do you hope it will accomplish?
There has been a lot of pushback from activist groups saying that they don’t think there are enough community voices in this group, and I’m trying to connect the leaders of this group to the activist groups to be sure we add more community representation.
One of the reasons I chose to be in the group is that I represent a district where police and community relations are not so great. It’s predominantly communities of color and the indigenous community. Many people won’t even call the police because they don’t believe the police will help or they’re afraid they’ll get shot.
How do we improve those relations and make sure that police-community interactions are positive? How do we bring back the model of community policing, where police aren’t the bad guys but a partner in the community? How can we avoid the next shooting, and what are the steps for how that can be accomplished?
In February, you helped form a United Black Legislative Caucus in an effort to address racial disparities in the Legislature. What specific steps has the caucus taken so far?
I’m going to say not a whole lot.
We’re looking to make sure that we’re addressing child protection issues, that we’re addressing poverty issues, that we’re addressing issues that are specific to the black community. We haven’t met as much as we’d like to. It’s felt like each person is doing their own little thing but not collectively doing something together. But we are very aware of the issues and each one of us is well versed on what the issues of the community are.
On our agenda is the African American Family Preservation Act. Children from the black community are more likely to be placed in foster care or removed from their home than children from any other community. One of the reasons I left my job at Child Protective Services was I told my boss, “We’re walking into these homes with the assumption that black and brown folks are bad parents and white parents are good parents.” That’s the lenses most people are wearing and then you have a checklist that, “Yep, yep, I knew my assumptions were true.”