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?

When Healey appeared in housing court later that month to contest the eviction notice, he was approached by Jon Lebewitz, who identified himself as an agent hired to represent Malecek and a number of other landlords. According to Healey, "He herded about half of the tenants from the courtroom into the hallway and told us it was in our best interests to settle." When it came time to discuss a compromise, Healey says, Lebewitz informed him that Malecek was intent on collecting his court costs and legal fees--in all, $187. Healey refused to cooperate.

When he went before housing court referee Susan Ledray that morning, however, Healey got an unwelcome bit of news. Ledray told him that unless a lease specifically states that a UD can't be filed during the standard grace period, a landlord can petition for an eviction at any time after the first of the month. Backed into a corner, he agreed to discuss a settlement with Lebewitz.

"After much wrangling, the agreement was that I would do what I'd already done, which was pay the rent, and move out by the end of the month," Healey says. "It was my understanding that if I didn't settle, the court would make me pay the other costs and fees. And I wasn't about to do that." What Healey didn't know then, however, was that the UD would remain on his record for years.

Mike Wohnoutka

"It's not my job to apprise tenants about the law," says Lebewitz, whose company, L & M Management, provides a variety of agent services for more than two dozen metro-area landlords. "I am not responsible for educating tenants. My goal is to settle and formalize the agreement."

As it turned out, Healey's immediate troubles weren't over. A few weeks after he'd moved out, he received a letter from Malecek stating that he intended to keep Healey's $475 damage deposit. "Half of it was to recover his court fees and legal costs--which had mysteriously risen to $257," Healey recalls. "The other was for a 'termination fee,' which housing services tells me is absolutely illegal, even though he'd written it into the lease." Since then Healey has filed for a hearing in Hennepin County Conciliation Court to recover his deposit. "I certainly question the legality of my ex-landlord's claims," he says, "and I'm hoping to get an answer when we go to court in March."

If there's one thing the ordeal has taught him, Healey adds, it's that tenants stand at a definite legal disadvantage when it comes to rental disputes--by virtue of the ease with which landlords are able to file UDs, transfer court fees to their tenants, and include in lease agreements terms that are forbidden by local and state law. "After all this, I can see why tenants just throw up their hands and say, 'Forget it. You win,'" he says. "It's nearly impossible to fight in this system, with landlords evicting them in retaliation for complaining. What I saw in housing court was frightening: a lot of confused people, uneducated about their rights, powerless, and with very few options. It appeared that many were being manipulated by some pretty savvy landlords and agents. I wonder, who is really advocating for these people?

"'There was a telling little scene that happened in court that I think describes the predicament many tenants find themselves in: After I refused to settle, Lebewitz offered a deal wherein I'd pay $50 toward legal fees and be free. I said no, that I'd feel defeated paying even one penny because this is so unjust. So he told me to think it over, and went off to deal with some other defendants. There were these two guys sitting on either side of me--they'd been there before, and knew that hallway well. I was planted with my head in my hands, and they were shaking their heads in sympathy. One of them said, 'You can't win down here. As soon as they file a UD against you, you've lost."

 

Regardless of whether Healey recoups his money, he is still in better financial shape than most tenants who find themselves on the receiving end of an unlawful detainer. While housing court doesn't track the demographics of those who come into this courtroom, the consensus among administrators and housing advocates is that out of the 12,000 or so cases heard in Hennepin County each year, the majority of tenants are low-income residents. Most live paycheck to paycheck, meaning that any disruption to their income--a major car repair, a whopping medical bill--can force them to choose between groceries and rent; feeding their families usually comes first, placing their housing in peril.

In addition, says former Minneapolis Legal Aid Society attorney Robin Ann Williams, "The chance of receiving an unlawful detainer has gotten worse since welfare reform. When the economic safety net for a low-income family is compromised, any hiccup in the family budget can result in a UD." And remember, she goes on, that a decade ago the loss of a roommate might have meant a tenant simply moved to a smaller apartment; now, given the lack of affordable housing, that sort of easy relocation is no longer possible. Whereas in the past--when the market wasn't so favorable to them and tenants were harder to come by--a late rent check might have resulted in nothing more than an exchange of strong words, landlords are now less willing to work out payment with tenants. These days, Williams says, exceeding the grace period will more than likely earn you a UD.

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