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?

In Roberts's case, Luce points out, the day after she filed her ETRA, her landlord countered with a UD.

"This was clearly in retaliation for complaining about conditions," says Luce, who emphasizes that Roberts had paid her rent without fail each month. Fortunately for Roberts, the UD was dismissed in housing court and her rent was reduced to $420 a month until Floy completed the repairs. He was granted a two-week window during which to comply with the referee's order.

Floy attempted to do so, however grudgingly, by replacing the apartment's refrigerator. "The first one he got me was rusted and full of roaches," recalls Roberts, "but at least it kept the roaches cold." The third appliance he supplied worked. At their next court date, in November, a housing referee ordered Floy to complete the repairs, and scheduled yet another hearing. The very next day, Floy filed another unlawful detainer against his tenant.

Mike Wohnoutka

Three court appearances later, with no resolution in sight and two eviction notices to her name, Roberts had had enough. She moved out.

Before she left, however, she contacted housing inspector Sharon Larson to view the property. Among the violations Larson found on her December 29 walk-through were clogged plumbing, mice, a slew of structural problems including the porch and roof, faulty electrical wiring, and several nonfunctioning appliances parked in the hallway. She immediately sent Floy a letter warning that his property was at risk of being condemned; should he refuse to cooperate, Larson says the house could be condemned--for the reasons Roberts first complained about and more--as early as next month. In the meantime, Floy's rental license has been suspended.

 

According state law, Hennepin and Ramsey County district courts are required to record the outcome of every unlawful detainer case. (These two are the only counties in Minnesota with housing courts.) Over the last decade, as both Minneapolis and St. Paul implemented community policing actions to combat urban-core crime, city officials have taken to leaning heavily on landlords to "clean up" their properties and evict "undesirable" tenants. In response, beleaguered landlords have adopted tougher tenant-screening practices, and begun to rely heavily on private companies to investigate prospective tenants. Now, for as little as $15, these outfits can supply landlords with an applicant's complete credit and rental history.

But there is, among other problems in the system, a crucial catch. "The reports don't differentiate between one Tom Jones and another," says attorney Luce. Often with unsettling results.

Case in point: In February of 1996, Deborah Wilson applied for a unit at Parkview Apartments in Minneapolis. Parkview has a contract with Minnetonka-based Rental Research Services Inc. to conduct applicant background checks; on Parkview management's behest, they ran a report on Wilson. The agency offers two types of searches: One is called "Instant Inquiry"--an unverified report that shows unlawful detainers, collection agency records, criminal convictions and sentences, and credit histories. The other is a "Verified Completion Report" which confirms the "Instant Inquiry" information. When Wilson's report came back, it contained 12 "possible" unlawful detainers, and one "possible" collection account record. Only two of the 12 UDs listed were hers (one, from 1992, had been resolved with her landlord out of court; the second had been dismissed). The 10 others belonged to different women also named Deborah Wilson.

On the basis of that report, says Legal Aid attorney Dave Ramp, Parkview turned her down for an apartment. Wilson contacted the agency to dispute the erroneous listings of the unrelated UDs, the reporting of a judgment that had been satisfied, and the inclusion of a collection action against yet another Deborah Wilson with a different social security number.

One month later, Wilson says she received a letter from Rental Research saying they'd removed the 10 erroneous UDs, but they declined to look further into her other complaints--including the items from other women's records that had been wrongly listed on hers. By then, the apartment had gone to another applicant, and Wilson spent the next seven months living with family and friends, unable to secure housing anywhere in the cities.

"These agencies don't effectively remove incorrect data from their records," Ramp charges. "By the time they get around to fixing it, tenants can find themselves poor and homeless."

In early August of 1996, Ramp filed a lawsuit against Rental Research in Hennepin County District Court. To prove his point about the name glitch, he says, "We ran a search with some common names." Names like Michael Jordan, the ex-basketball player; Paul Anderson, a Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice; Mike Davis, a federal district court judge; and Diana Murphy, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. Each produced long lists of UDs (4, 12, 14, and 4, respectively). All would likely be turned down for housing at Parkview Apartments.

If you're looking for someone to blame for the snafu, says Rental Research attorney Bob Thavis of Leonard Street & Deinard, look to the law rather than to tenant-screening companies. "Rental Research accurately reports court records," he says, "but the records don't have enough information in them to differentiate between people with similar names."

Agreed, Ramps says, adding that housing court staff rely on landlords for the correct spelling of a tenant's name, and that the information they supply does not include social security numbers, middle names, or dates of birth. However, he continues, according to the Federal Fair Credit Act, a consumer reporting agency must follow "reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information." Since screening companies are aware of the court's recording flaws, Ramp reasons that they shouldn't be reporting UDs unless they are absolutely certain they belong to the individual in question. The cost of those mistakes, he says, can be devastating to tenants in already precarious positions.

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