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?

Last spring Kedrowski sold the house to a family friend, Ted Mika, without telling Labonne. Kedrowski then proceeded to file a third unlawful detainer against her.

"It sounded like a scheme to get her out," attorney Tom White, who agreed to represent Labonne pro bono, says of the notice. Mika's attorney says simply that "Kedrowski told him the house would be vacant when he assumed ownership." He adds that Mika had no intention of becoming a landlord--that he'd bought the house to fix up and sell at a profit.

And so Labonne's troubles continued, first with a preliminary hearing late last summer during which a district court judge dismissed the third UD and settled nothing between Labonne and Mika but their next court date. Before that could take place, Mika filed an unlawful detainer against Labonne--bringing her grand total to four.

Mike Wohnoutka

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Weary of the fight, Labonne did what many tenants do after months in housing court limbo: She gave up. "I knew I was going to have to move no matter what happened," she explains. "And I was tired of this thing dragging on and taking up so much of my life." So with a stipulation that Mika write her a letter of reference, Labonne agreed to leave by the end of October.

"It's been a nightmare," Labonne says. "I spent so much time in housing court that I lost my lunch shifts [at work] and I haven't been able to get caught up financially since." What's more, she continues, she became so stressed out with worry--Where would she and her kids go? What will this end up costing? What about her rental history?--that she was forced to miss work frequently and ended up losing her job.

Labonne was able to temporarily rent a house in South Minneapolis, though she is now in the midst of another search. She says her kids have come through the difficult times as well as can be expected, but the uncertainty, along with the weight of grief from her husband's death, continues to trouble the family. "It's been a rough couple years since Pierre died, and all I really want is to get some stability in our lives." But with her now-spoiled rental record, Labonne says she knows her problems are far from over: "It's hard enough to find somebody who'll take you when you have three teenagers, let alone four UDs."

 

Around the time Labonne's housing court fight was winding down, Valeriessia Roberts's was just heating up. Roberts is just the kind of tenant housing advocates point to as a prime example of UDs being used to retaliate against those who complains about substandard conditions.

In mid-August of last year, Roberts, a legally blind, single mother of two, moved her family into a duplex on Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. Her landlord, Randolph Floy, occupied the top floor, while she rented the bottom two-bedroom unit for $650 a month.

In late fall, as the temperature dropped, problems arose. "When it first started to get cold, we didn't have any heat," Roberts recalls. But her upstairs neighbors had heat, she says, so she confronted Floy, who denied shutting hers off. It got so bad, Roberts says, that she and her children were forced to move out and stay with friends for weeks while she searched for someone willing to help her.

An acquaintance who worked as a building caretaker came to her rescue. He inspected the furnace and discovered the problem: Heat for the first-floor apartment had indeed been switched off. Her friend reactivated the system, but Roberts says that after she and her children moved back in, their living situation, as well as her relationship with Floy, deteriorated further.

In short order, the electrical outlets in the dining room and living room weren't working; neither were the stove or the refrigerator. When she approached Floy again, she says, he blamed the problems on her: "He told me that I broke the refrigerator, and that everything worked just fine until I moved in." Roberts, who lives on a fixed income because of her disability, says that Floy's unresponsiveness cost her well over $200 in spoiled meat and produce, an amount she could ill afford.

Floy, who declined to comment for this story, still refused to make the repairs, says Roberts, and on October 26, she filed for an Emergency Tenants Remedies Action (ETRA)--one of three ways tenants can appeal for housing court intervention. Her Legal Aid attorney, Greg Luce, who handles UD cases for low-income tenants in Hennepin County, explains that an ETRA is filed when certain basic living needs are not being met by the landlord--heat, water, sewer, and the like. A Tenants Remedy Action (TRA) will also grant immediate relief, he explains, but is filed when conditions are not life-threatening. The third remedy is rent escrow, as was ordered in Labonne's case. Keep in mind, too, Luce says, that during any phase of a landlord-tenant dispute, a judge or referee can also reduce the tenant's rent or waive the rent entirely for a time. In any event, a tenant must first secure the court's permission to withhold rent, regardless of how egregious their living situation, or a landlord can file an eviction notice.

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