Renters rights discussed in Ward 13

Fire inspector Robert Sayers, a tenant navigator in Minneapolis, speaks at a Ward 13 renter's rights and issues meeting.

With over half of city residents renting and low vacancy rates persisting across Minneapolis, renters in Southwest brought questions about their rights to a forum hosted by Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano on snowy evening Feb. 7 in Linden Hills.

The City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey have made the push for more affordable housing a priority in 2019. Palmisano said her office has been working with Ward 4 City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison on developing a renter’s bill of rights.

While that plan is being developed, rights for renters remain very limited, acknowledged city tenant navigators Darrell Spears and Robert Sayers. The city tenant navigator is a new position working on power imbalances in the city, Sayers said, though he prefers the title housing equity specialist.

“We’ve been put in place to start to look at things a little bit differently,” Sayers said. “There’s always been somebody in place to offer programming and assistance to homeowners, but there really hasn’t been anything in place to help renters.”

Spears, a lead housing inspector with regulatory services who works with single-family, duplex and triplex homes, said his department is working on ways to mitigate problems between landlords and tenants. He said the city currently has a 2 percent vacancy rate and 51 percent of residents are renters.

“Basically we have 100 percent occupancy, so it’s hard to find places,” Spears said.

That low vacancy rate has renters concerned about having to move or being asked to pay a great deal more when their current lease ends.

A man who preferred not to be identified for fear of retaliation from his property management company, said his understanding is as a tenant he has no rights. The man said his building has a new property management company, and when his last lease ended, they declined to let him sign another, keeping him on a month-to-month basis despite his offer to pay a whole year’s rent up front at a higher rate.

“I don’t want to be evicted, I don’t want to have to move,” the man said.

Spears and Sayers said it’s true that renters have few rights, but did offer recommendations like calling Homeline, a free legal service for people facing housing cases in Minnesota.

One woman asked if there was any law in Minnesota to limit to the amount landlords can raise rents each year and was told currently there is no rent control in Minneapolis.

Spears and Sayers said many negative interactions between landlords and tenants can be resolved through relationships and mediation, but acknowledged some property owners are taking advantage of people, particularly people with few options.

“Most of our landlords in this city are good landlords, but we do have a few landlords who are extremely predatory,” Sayers said.

In Linden Hills, Palmisano said she suspects some landlords get people to pay housing application fees and don’t run background checks. Sayers said he has had experience with landlords accepting multiple application fees for a unit, an illegal practice. Once a landlord has taken an application fee, the law prohibits them from taking more until their application process is done. He said many renters are unaware of that policy and recommended those seeking new housing ask the owner or property if they’ve accepted other applications before paying the fee.

Palmisano said renters in Ward 13 have expressed frustration with her office about not being able to get their security deposits back. Many people with Section 8 housing vouchers feel discriminated against, she said.

Many people who are on housing vouchers, subsidies or being aided by nonprofit organizations into housing often get funneled into predatory landlords, Sayers said.

“Unfortunately we don’t have enough properties that are opening up their doors to people in transition or on subsidies. That two percent vacancy rate, that is not affordable housing,” Sayers said.