Renters challenge new rules at Pleasant Avenue apartments

Credit: Anain Lozano (l) and Natasha Villanueva knock on apartment doors on Pleasant Avenue. Photo by Michelle Bruch

It’s not uncommon for tenants at 3019, 3023 and 3027 Pleasant to see notes from the landlord taped to the doors.

A few recent notes from QT Properties caused alarm for some renters, however. One letter imposed a February deadline for enrollment in online bill pay. The office would no longer accept payments or repair requests in the drop box, the letter said.

“The problem here is many people living here don’t have Internet, and many people don’t have [a bank] account,” said apartment resident Anain Lozano. “Many people don’t know how to use email.”

Another letter from the landlord notified residents that starting in January, there would be a fee to park in a surface lot behind the buildings. The new charges prompted two residents to challenge the mid-lease changes in housing court, and a judicial officer ruled in the tenants’ favor.

Tenants said another letter taped to doors said kids are prohibited from playing outside in the yard; rental staff told the Southwest Journal there is no such restriction.

A general manager at QT Properties declined to answer questions about billing and parking.

“I prefer to discuss everything directly with the tenants,” said Fernando, who has previously declined to print his last name.

Nine renters met in an apartment and decided to visit the rental office together, hoping for power in numbers. To spread the word beforehand, Lozano and volunteers from the Lyndale Neighborhood Association knocked on every door at 3019, 3023 and 3027 Pleasant Ave.

About 15 renters, including kids, visited the rental office on March 2 to discuss their concerns about paying online. Staff responded by saying the billing change would only apply to residents upon lease renewal, according to Jennifer Arnold, lead organizer of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.

Fernando declined to discuss the issue, and said staff explain terms directly with tenants.

“People have options, it is a free market,” he said. “We comply with all Fair Housing laws.”

HOME Line Managing Attorney Mike Vraa said landlords cannot mandate changes in payment mid-lease. He said he doesn’t think current law prevents them from requiring online payment for new leases, however.

“At some point they’re going to alienate their market,” he said. “I’m not sure how much the landlord is going to gain by doing it this way.”

Vraa said he’s seen some landlords ask tenants to take rent money directly to the property’s bank. That way tenants don’t need a bank account, he said, and staff still have the benefit of easily resolving questions over late payments and don’t have to directly handle money.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said the online billing issue is “quite concerning” to her.                         

“We have a large number of residents who are unbanked,” she said.

Arnold said she’s talking to staff at Legal Aid about whether a discrimination case might apply to the issue.

Another area of concern at Lake & Pleasant relates to rules about the yard.

Lozano and resident Maria Guadalupe said signs were posted on exterior doors saying kids should not play in the yard or hallways. One neighbor playing ball with his son in the yard was asked by staff to stop, they said. The women said kids typically play in a yard across the parking lot they believe is not owned by QT Properties.

“Our apartments are very small,” Lozano said. “Why do the kids have to be all the time in the apartment?”

When asked whether kids are prohibited from playing outside on the property, Fernando said that is not the case.

“Kids are kids,” he said. “They have to be under supervision.”

A November lease says children are not allowed to play in hallways, stairways or entryways, but says nothing about the outdoors.

Vraa said it’s safer for a landlord to prohibit everyone from using outdoor space, rather than only kids, which would be deemed more discriminatory in court. It’s more common to see rules about outdoor activity in high-traffic areas, he said, where landlords are worried about kids running out in the street. He said the issue also crops up if many teenagers are hanging out on a property, which some landlords view as more dangerous.

Another letter to tenants prompted legal action early this year. QT Properties staff wrote that beginning in January, they would start charging each unit for parking in the lot, with monthly fees of $25 for the first vehicle and $50 for the second.

In response, Guadalupe and Lozano sought help from Legal Aid and filed a rent escrow action in Hennepin County Housing Court. They argued that the landlord was denying parking as established in the lease, and endangered tenants by requiring them to park blocks away from the building.

In a Feb. 4 hearing, Housing Court Referee Amy Draeger made a judgment in favor of the tenants and ordered the landlord to immediately issue them one parking permit.

Although the judgment impacts Lozano and Guadalupe, it doesn’t alter the parking charges for the other units in the complex, Arnold said. The parking lot is nearly empty, Lozano said, as people now park on the street to avoid extra charges.

Lozano and Guadalupe said they don’t think anyone else will challenge the parking fees, because most other tenants don’t want to cause trouble and risk eviction.

Guadalupe said it is difficult for Latinos to find new apartments. Many apartments require a social security number from applicants, she said.

“When you knock on the door, most people feel scared,” she said. “I think many people don’t know about their rights.”

Lozano said some people are so nervous about the possibility of eviction they don’t want to ask for basic repairs.

Glidden said she’s heard those worries anecdotally before.

“The fear of retaliation is very common for making complaints about necessary repairs and health and safety issues,” Glidden said. “I’ve heard about it multiple times, and I think it is a very real piece of the atmosphere out there. It’s especially concerning right now, knowing that it’s such a tight rental market.”

She said Regulatory Services staff are meeting with Corcoran and other neighborhood groups on tenant issues.

“Over the past year in particular, a number of neighborhood groups are doing what is really hard work to engage with tenants who may not have typically been the subject of doorknocking to this extent,” Glidden said.

QT Properties’ buildings at 3019 Pleasant, 3023 Pleasant, 3027 Pleasant and 3032 Pillsbury are not on the city’s “Good Cause” list, which uses a scoring system to restrict some properties from obtaining additional rental licenses. Violations at the buildings over the past two years included trash removal, bedbug extermination, repairs to units and propped doors.

Glidden said she wonders if the city’s “Good Cause” list doesn’t always track with the variety of legal concerns a tenant might have.

Glidden said the city could augment resources already given to HOME Line and Legal Aid, perhaps helping Spanish and Somali speakers access advice. She said she’d like to find ways for the city to be more responsive to tenants.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll see additional action from the city on this topic,” Glidden said.