The Path of Lease Resistance

Hennepin County Housing Court was set up to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants. So why do the landlords keep winning?

By 9:00 a.m. the Hennepin County courtroom's gallery is packed body to body. The air is dense and warm this winter morning; folks shed their coats quickly and fan themselves with a section of the day's newspaper or their legal documents. Somewhere in the middle of the crowd, a pager goes off. The drowsy sheriff's deputy springs into action and approaches the gallery: No beepers or cell phones in housing court. A heavyset man in the third row scowls, pats his pockets, and retrieves the offending device. Across the aisle, 3-year-old twins amuse themselves in the spring-loaded seats designed with hinges so tight they snap shut when the girls shift their slight weights. Their energy lightens some of the grim expressions around them, but the effect is short-lived.

A low partition separates the gallery from the judge's bench--an imposing stretch of light wood running the courtroom's width. The court clerk enters the room, bangs her gavel, and opens the day's business by reading the housing court preamble with the fervor of a rote prayer. She runs through the roll call, ticking off the names of plaintiffs and defendants, pausing only when her tongue slips on a pronunciation.

The scene hasn't changed much in the last decade: same somber atmosphere, same scripted calling-to-order, though the room has become more crowded than in past years. When occasional landlord-tenant disputes first found their way into a courtroom more than a century ago, they were heard by district court judges, most of whom were already burdened with overloaded dockets and had little experience in dealing with such cases; as a result, neither party knew what to expect when they arrived for hearings, and judges' rulings were often inconsistent. In 1989 the Minnesota Legislature intervened and created housing court, ostensibly to provide a hassle-free forum for landlord-tenant squabbles. Property owners could petition the court to throw out tenants who trashed their properties or skipped on paying rent, and tenants could request that the court require their landlords to make needed repairs. Fair enough, at least in theory.

Mike Wohnoutka

But a decade after the creation of this Hennepin County court, local housing attorneys and advocates say that the Legislature's solution hasn't worked in practice--indeed, that the scales of justice have increasingly tipped in favor of landlords. In today's market, with a local rental vacancy rate hovering around an all-time low of 1.5 percent and a rapidly diminishing stock of affordable housing, they agree that landlords enjoy the upper hand when it comes to rental-housing agreements. The mere threat of a so-called unlawful detainer-- an eviction notice filed with the court--has proven enough to silence many tenants' complaints about substandard living conditions and abusive management practices. Should they complain, it is of little consequence whether a tenant who's been served a UD can prove in court the validity of his or her position: Even if the tenant prevails, an eviction notice--which is not automatically erased when a landlord loses--will blacken his record for a full seven years, crippling his chances of securing housing in the future.

Steve Healey got his education in the vagaries of tenant-landlord disputes last spring. In April the 31-year-old community-college English instructor signed a lease on an apartment in a fourplex in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis. He'd been renting in the city

for more than six years and had always been on good terms with his landlords; his last one had been happy to act as a reference.

Everything went well for six months. Then, in the course of a conversation last October, Healey says, his landlord, Chris Malecek, mentioned that each of the four units was being billed for part of the building's common utilities--lights in the hallways and basement, and gas for the laundry room's water heater. "He told me that the charges were going on to our meters," Healey recalls. "The electricity was apparently divided up by appliances--he'd wired the place that way without informing any of us that we'd have to pay for it. None of this was in our leases." (Malecek did not return repeated interview requests for this story.)

A few days later Healey wrote a letter to Malecek, suggesting that the practice was unfair and, as he'd learned from a quick study of Minnesota statues, "downright illegal--landlords are required to pay the entire amount of shared meters." Much to Healey's surprise, Malecek responded by threatening to file an unlawful detainer against him, claiming that Healey was late in paying his rent.

The coincidental timing of the warning wasn't lost on Healey: "After I learned about the screwy utility charges, I talked to the Minnesota Housing Services office to find out what rights and options I might have. By the 4th of the month, I still hadn't gotten a clear answer, so I drove over to my landlord's house and dropped off my rent check, for $475, in his mailbox--my lease agreement included what's known as a 'grace period' that allows tenants to pay rent by the 5th without it being considered late. I'd done that on occasion before, and he'd never objected. But by the time I paid it in November, he'd already filed a UD."

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