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?

Add these unfortunate tenants to the raft of those served with UDs for complaining about management practices, and you've got a very crowded courtroom five days a week. Then factor in an unreliable tenant-screening process, as well as the nearly impossible odds against tenants managing to clear up their rental histories, and in today's market an eviction notice comes to look more like a weapon than a remedy.

"There's a master-slave dynamic in the tenant-landlord relationship," says Kirk Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Tenants Union. Even if you set aside cases where the tenant is clearly in the wrong, Hill asserts, all too often you're looking at a situation where "unlawful detainers are being used by property owners against renters as punishment for complaining about their living conditions." Hill, who has spent the last 20 years fighting for tenants rights, says that as the metro rental market dries up, more landlords are using UDs as a means of coercing tenants into keeping quiet about their situations; if they don't, there's a long line of applicants waiting at the door.

Although figures compiled by the Hennepin County court system show a decrease in the number of UDs filed in recent years--13,524 in 1992 compared to 10,281 in 1997--Hill contends that the numbers are misleading: "I would expect the drop. Landlords don't want to spend the $132 filing fee, so they terrorize tenants through the threat of UDs. It's outrageous."

Mike Wohnoutka

On a typical day, some 70 landlords and tenants air their grievances in Hennepin County housing court. A full 90 percent of these cases involve unlawful detainers. Among those heard this past November 16 was that of Sandra Labonne, a 49-year-old waitress and mother of three. Labonne is contesting the remaining unlawful detainer of the four filed against her last year--notices she claims were filed after she lodged complaints about code violations in the house she rented. To date, she has been required to appear in housing court more than a dozen times to argue her case.

In October of 1997, Labonne rented a small house a stone's throw from the Veterans Administration Hospital in South Minneapolis. Her husband Pierre had died of cancer the previous year, leaving Labonne with a stack of medical bills. She'd waited tables for years, and with her hourly wage of $4.50 plus tips, she figured she could afford the $485 rent while chipping away at her late husband's debt. According to Labonne, she and then-owner Harris Marwede reached an oral, month-to-month lease agreement. Because Marwede was elderly and in poor health, his son-in-law John Kumpula agreed to act as the property's manager. On October 26, 1997, Labonne moved in with her three teenagers, Nanette, Jesse, and Will.

From the start, Labonne says, "The house had some problems." Among the most troubling were an oven that wouldn't heat, a refrigerator that didn't keep food cold, smoke detectors that didn't work, and a back door that had been sealed shut--all code violations. There was also, she recalls, a score of other minor repairs to be done on broken cabinet doors, storm windows, and the toilet. Labonne says her primary concern was the stove: "I wanted to be able to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. It was important for us to continue on as a family." She complained to Kumpula, who by her account agreed to "look into it."

But the repairs weren't done. Labonne says that she nonetheless sent Marwede a cashier's check each month. Then, on January 6, she got a call from Russell Kedrowski, who introduced himself as the new owner of the property--a surprise to her. He wanted to know where the rent money was. She explained that she'd already sent it, then filled the caller in on repairs that were still pending. A week later, she says, Kedrowski appeared on her doorstep demanding the money. Much to her chagrin, she learned that her former landlord had died a couple days into the new year, and his accounts were frozen until his estate went through probate. When Kedrowski asked to see her rent payment receipt, Labonne told him she hadn't thought to keep it.

Days later Kedrowski, claiming that she hadn't paid her January rent, filed an unlawful detainer against her.

Early the next month, an impatient Labonne contacted the Minneapolis Inspections department, asking that they check the house for code violations. They did, and on February 16 Kedrowski was cited for a list of infractions--including failure to install storm windows and extension-pipe release valves for the water heater--and ordered to take care of them. That warning, Labonne hoped, would prompt her landlord to finally get busy on repairs. "There were some things that needing fixing," Kedrowski concedes.

What Labonne didn't know, however, was that two days prior to the inspection, he had filed a second UD against her, on the same grounds.

That second eviction notice set off a tug-of-war that continued for the next four months. Ruling in favor of Labonne, a housing court referee dismissed the first UD. (Had she lost, the referee would have granted a "writ of restitution," which would have allowed officers from the sheriff's department to remove her and her children within 24 hours.) Labonne was allowed to pay rent into an escrow account until Kedrowski made the repairs. But although the referee also found in Labonne's favor on the second UD, both remained on her record.

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