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.

Mike Wohnoutka

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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.

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."

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.

"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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

That's an unreasonable burden to place on these companies, counters Thavis, who adds that Rental Research warns landlords against taking the information it supplies at face value. The company's disclaimer advises landlords and building managers that the "information may not pertain to the subject of this report." Thavis argues that what is really at stake here is a "statutory interpretation question," and that it is the state Legislature, not screening companies or landlords, who should address the predicament.

Hennepin County District Court agreed with Thavis, and the lawsuit was dismissed. Ramp then took his case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and on January 19, the appellate court ruled that Wilson is entitled to a new trial on the grounds that Rental Research violated its "duty of accuracy" under the Federal Credit Reporting Act and that its practices are unfair to those it investigates.

Jack Horner, a lobbyist for the landlord trade group Minnesota Multi Housing Association, says it's long been his position that landlords have the right to protect their investments; one of the ways they do this is by filing eviction notices against "bad tenants." When it comes to the issue of landlord's precluding applicants with UDs on their records, Horner casts a skeptical eye: "Good tenants aren't being turned down for housing," he says; what he calls bad tenants, on the other hand, are being refused housing for reasons often unrelated to UDs--among them, criminal convictions, spotty work histories, and financial instability.

Landlords do differentiate between applicants, he says. "If someone has fallen on hard times, that's one thing, but if they've destroyed property or have been caught dealing drugs, no one in their right mind wants to rent to them. Landlords don't believe that all UDs are the same." He points to a 1994 bill passed by the state Legislature that requires tenant-screening outfits to include a brief summary of all outcomes in UD cases. "Now," Horner says, "if the tenant prevails, it'll say so right on the report."

So what? asks attorney Tom White. In his five years of representing clients in housing court, he has found little evidence that the notations make a whit of difference. Landlords these days, he says, have the luxury of picking from a long line of applicants, and as a rule prefer renting to those with spotless records. "Landlords don't read those things," he says. "They look and see the words 'unlawful detainer' and then go on to the next applicant." UDs, he adds, look bad in a landlord's eyes no matter their resolution: Whether a landlord wins or loses in court, UDs are costly and full of headaches for property owners; allowing someone with them on their record is simply inviting trouble through your door.

The only remedy against this brand of discrimination, White reasons, is to automatically erase UDs from tenants' records when a housing court judge rules in their favor.

 

According to statistics compiled by Hennepin County Housing Court, only nine of the 8,846 unlawful detainers filed in Minneapolis in 1997 were expunged. During that same year in Ramsey County, over 4,400 UDs were filed and none was erased. (Neither county, say court clerks, keep track of which party prevailed.) Except under rare circumstances, White says, "once an unlawful detainer is on a tenant's record, it will stay there for the next seven years." When it comes to finding housing with a UD on your record--even if the case was dismissed--all White can say is, "Good luck."

Under pressure by local housing activists, the situation has improved recently, if only slightly, says Hennepin Housing Court referee Thomas Haeg. "If you applied for an expungement two years ago, it would have had little effect. But there's definitely been an increase since then." A total of 23 expungements were granted during the first nine months of 1998, though housing court clerk Sue Nelson admits that the increase could be just a glitch: "We only started tracking the number of expungements in the last two years."

Even if the courts are starting to erase UD information, says tenant advocate Hill, those who can't afford an attorney to pursue the matter or don't qualify for free legal aid "might as well forget about it." He and other housing advocates are holding out hope that the Minnesota Legislature will address some of their concerns this session.

That hope seems well-placed. Nancy Mishel, a lobbyist for Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP), an advocacy group for low-income Legal Aid clients across the state, says, "The issues of unlawful detainers and expungements have been given a high priority by my organization this session." Among LSAP's proposals: creating a grievance procedure by which a tenant who has been threatened with a UD can alert the court, and instituting guidelines that would direct housing and district court judges to expunge UDs when the case is dismissed or the tenant prevails.

As might be expected, Minnesota Multi Housing Association is planning a full-tilt counter to altering the current laws. "We oppose any broad use of expungements," lobbyist Horner says. "They are used almost exclusively in criminal cases, and it make us nervous to extend it to civil [ones]." Mishel welcomes the fight, even while cautioning that "we don't have a lead author in the House or the Senate yet." Her staff at LSAP has been actively hashing out details with several legislators known to support expungement when tenants win in housing court, among them Rep. Dan McElroy (a third-term Burnsville Republican who chairs the Jobs and Economic Development committee) and Sen. Steven Novak (a fifth-term DFLer from New Brighton and chair of the Jobs, Energy and Commmunity Development committee), both of whom have signaled their willingness to sponsor legislation this session.

While no one is ready to predict how a vote might go, Mishel says the recent groundswell of public support for the change means legislators are more likely to give the issue serious consideration this spring; an informal head count by local housing advocates indicates that a vote is still too close to call.

In the meantime, White is busy drafting a motion to expunge the four unlawful detainers from Sandra Labonne's rental history. But with the way things stand now, he figures, the possibility of that happening is more hopeless than a criminal's chance of clearing their record of a felony conviction.

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