Legal protections, and rules, for renters
You've asked your caretaker or landlord to fix your busted refrigerator, leaky pipe or broken window several times, but all you've gotten in return are excuses and high blood pressure.
You may feel like picking up the phone to "give them a piece of your mind" or withholding your rent, but hold on. Such actions may lead to further frustration, or, worse yet, land you out on the street.
Renters have state-granted rights to recourse, but you have to follow the rules.
According to the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition (MLSC) booklet "Tenants' Rights in Minnesota," the first step is to simply ask the landlord or caretaker to fix the problem. Don't wait; it is important to ask as soon as the problem is apparent.
According to James Baumgartner, vice president of property management for Great Lakes Management Co., which manages everything from six-unit buildings to the 727-unit Laurel Village Apartments, 11th & Hennepin, it's also in renters' best interest to smile and be polite when they make such a request.
"Sometimes we see tenants that escalate [in anger] from zero to 60 - boom, like that," Baumgartner said. "And that is not always the most effective way to get things done."
Write a letter
If your polite requests fail, according to the MLSC booklet, the next step is to write a letter directly to the landlord, listing the repair problems.
Galen Robinson, a managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, said tenants should be sure to sign, date and keep an extra copy of this or any subsequent letters.
If letters and politeness don't get the job done, the next step is to contact a city housing inspector (673-5858 in Minneapolis).
The inspector goes through the property and details problems in a report, which is then sent to the landlord, ordering any necessary repairs to be done by a certain deadline.
If the inspectors' deadline passes and repairs still aren't made, tenants can take the landlord to Hennepin County Housing Court, located in the Government Center, 300 S. 6th St.
The Legal Aid Society usually suggests that tenants file a Rent Escrow Action. Robinson said tenants should bring to court whatever proof they have that repairs are needed and that they fulfilled their notification duties, such as a copy of the inspector's report and/or their 14-day-old letter to their landlord.
At this point, the court usually sets up a rent escrow account, meaning that tenants pay rent to the court instead of the landlord. A second hearing is then set up wherein the landlord may be ordered to make repairs. Typically, a compliance hearing is set up later to determine whether the repairs were completed, Robinson added.
It costs $55 to file a Rent Escrow Action in Housing Court. However, tenants can ask to have their rent abated (reduced) until repairs are completed. Robinson said abatement is not a given, though, and depends upon such factors as the timing of the hearing and the number of repairs required.
For the eight years Baumgartner has been with Great Lakes Management Co., he said most problems have been resolved through simple communication. He said just two tenants have filed a Rent Escrow Action in court; one of which was successful. A leak in the renter's unit's siding had led to water-soaked drywall and carpet, "So we had to get into there and take care of it," Baumgartner said. "It was a big deal."
According to the MLSC, tenants have the right to withhold rent when their unit is not functioning properly. However, Robinson said the Legal Aid Society does not encourage tenants to do so.
He said it is safer to involve the courts and have them order the repairs. If a tenant withholds rent, the landlord might file an action against them for nonpayment, in which case the tenant would then become the defendant.
The court may then order the tenant to pay the amount withheld, especially if they cannot substantiate the unit's disrepair with official reports or letters. If tenants don't have the money at that time, they could be evicted.
"It is much safer if tenants want to enforce repair problems to go down and deposit the rent in court in a Rent Escrow Action," Robinson said.
Know your rights
For free fact sheets on repairs and other renters' issues, visit www.midmnlegal.org. Select "Fact Sheets" and scroll down to "housing."
Or, stop by a Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis office. The Downtown office is at 430 1st Ave. N, Ste. 300.