Security deposit requirement prevents tenants from challenging poor living conditions, lawyers say

Latora Thompson has bad memories of the north Minneapolis home she rented from owner Steven Meldahl, who was fined $ 133,500 last week by a Hennepin County judge.

She spent a winter at the house on the 300 block of 23rd Avenue. N without oven in operation. The mice entered her food and crawled on her children’s toys. The dishwasher stopped working and the oven on her gas stove was not working. A city inspector told him to stay out of the basement because of the asbestos.

Complaints to Meldahl have not been resolved, she said. “It was a terrible experience.”

Thompson, 33, and other tenants in Meldahl were unable to challenge living conditions, due to a court demand for tenants to repay rent in order to challenge the livability of a rental unit, according to Mark Iris, a lawyer for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. .

The requirement is criticized by Twin Cities housing lawyers who say it victimizes tenants.

Iris has represented dozens of Meldahl tenants and claims the landlord runs a “for-profit eviction program,” noting that Meldahl estimates he evicts 96-97% of his tenants in any given year, according to court documents.

Tenants, already reluctant to pay their rent due to unsanitary housing conditions, find themselves unable to challenge evictions or habitability standards until that rent has been paid into court receivership, Iris said. Meldahl continues to illegally raise her rent, Iris said, so they are always late and unable to pay the rent back. They are forced to pack up and leave.

David Shulman, one of Meldahl’s attorneys, declined to comment on Friday.

The practice of forcing tenants to repay rent to the court to challenge an eviction on livability issues is “draconian” and unconstitutional, according to an article in Bench & Bar Magazine, the publication of the Bar Association of the ‘State of Minnesota. The article was written by Jim Poradek, a tenants’ rights lawyer at the Housing Justice Center in St. Paul, and Luke Grundman, senior attorney with the housing unit at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

State law allows a tenant to defeat an eviction action for non-payment of rent if housing conditions violate habitability standards, Poradek said in an interview.

“The problem is that many Minnesota housing courts have imposed that before this defense can be heard by the court, the tenant must pay the rent in the arrears,” he said. “This creates a requirement to pay to play or pay to defend before the tenant can actually assert their statutory right in court. In our view, this is a quintessential violation of due process.”

The two lawyers cite the Minnesota Housing Court Benchbook, published in 2020, compiled by arbitrator Hennepin Mark Labine, who is now a part-time arbitrator. The book describes itself as “a guide to assist Minnesota judges in resolving housing court cases before them.”

The book notes that if a tenant wants to claim that the property has habitability issues, “then you must have a rent deposit owed in court and schedule a hearing.” The court order would then indicate “that if the tenant does not deposit the money ordered in escrow, that the hearing will be canceled and the writ [to evict] Posted. “

The book explains that “sometimes the real problem is that [the] tenant just doesn’t have the money to pay the rent owed and the deposit requirement will solve the problem. Often times when tenants realize this is going to happen, they are ready to settle the matter and either work on a payment agreement or they will agree to move out on a certain date. “

Poradek and Grundman insist this is not how Minnesota’s justice system should work – and say it leads to more evictions and homelessness.

In a statement, Labine said the requirement only follows the law. He notes a 1973 state Supreme Court ruling that says that “once the trial court has determined that a question of fact exists as to the breach of the habitability clauses, that court will order the tenant to pay the rent to be withheld from the landlord. in court, and until final resolution on the merits, any future rent withheld should also be paid to the courts. “

However, Poradek and Grundman say in their article that the 1973 decision requires the posting of future rent, not retroactive rent. They also say the High Court said the decision should be made quickly “and this procedure should not be used” in the majority of cases.

In his statement to the Star Tribune, Labine said: “I have no opinion as to whether or not this requirement that tenants file rent in court when they have habitability defenses is constitutional or not. smarter than me will have to make this decision I know I have found rent escrow to be a useful tool in making repairs as needed and at present it is required by housing law and the court supreme. “

Larry McDonough, another Housing Justice Center attorney who has helped draft most of the housing laws enacted in Minnesota since 1988, also believes this requirement is a violation of a law that needs to be corrected. He said a legislative effort to resolve the issue was stalled earlier this year.

McDonough said he was on a committee appointed by the state Supreme Court that advises on general court practices, and if the legislature does not act next spring, he could ask the committee to propose to the High Court to modify the requirement.

In the meantime, Meldahl’s fine does not include any restitution to tenants, although Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who brought the case, has requested it.

“I wish they had been compensated for what Meldahl put them through,” he said in a statement to the Star Tribune last week.

Tamara Daniels, 28, a former tenant of Meldahl, who experienced a winter without a running furnace, crumbling walls and a mouse infestation, said the gruesome tenants were not receiving restitution.

“We are the ones who lived in this state,” she said. “The property was not in habitable condition and we still had to pay rent.”

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