Stable housing has been critical for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet Housing Court and services have been increasingly difficult for the general public to access. The Hennepin County housing market remains tight, and an eviction notice can put a family in serious jeopardy.
Legal Aid’s housing unit represents families in Housing Court to defend clients’ rights as they face illegal evictions or landlords who ignore their responsibility to keep housing in good repair. As with many injustices, housing problems have been particularly hard on Black, Native, and Latinx communities.
A 2017 study showed that of tenants receiving full representation in Hennepin County Housing Court, 79% self-identified as people of color or mixed-race families. Almost 70% were families led by women. The two clients described below are single women of color who stood for their rights and successfully defended themselves and their families.
Maria’s Story: Evicted During a Pandemic
When Maria* realized she couldn’t pay her rent, she went to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha for help writing a letter to her landlord.
“I, like hundreds of thousands of others across the state, will not be paying rent,” she wrote. “For my safety and the safety of my community, we will continue to live and reside in our home. If I pay rent now, I will not be able to meet my or my family’s basic needs.”
A few months later, Maria and her two sons came home to a new lock on their apartment door. The family had no access to their belongings. With nowhere to go that night, they sheltered with a friend. Maria learned about Legal Aid later that week at a community presentation on housing law. She called the intake line, and Staff Attorney Jeffer Ali took Maria’s case.
Loss of Personal Property
“Things changed quickly with a lawyer,” recalls Maria. “They let me back in the apartment and gave me a new key, but when I opened the door, I was surprised again. They had thrown away all of our things. Maybe 10% of all we had remained.”
Luckily, Maria had photos of the apartment before the lockout that showed most of her furniture and belongings. Using those photos, Maria and her teenage son created a detailed list of property and values.
The landlord claimed since Maria had not paid rent for three months, they thought she had abandoned the apartment. But Maria’s tenant file contained her letter showing timely notice of her inability to pay rent and her intention to stay in the apartment. When that letter came to light, the landlord started to bargain.
“Maria’s documentation of property was invaluable,” says Ali. “The landlord started with a $3,000 offer. Maria and I talked about risk tolerance, and we declined the first few offers. I told her we were likely to win if it went to trial, but I couldn’t guarantee anything, and a trial could go on for months.”
A Favorable Settlement
The family needed money and stability. An hour before trial, Maria authorized Ali to make a demand of $20,000 plus $4,000 in rent forgiveness. The landlord immediately agreed. Ali suspects their lawyer told them they needed to avoid a trial.
“I learned that as tenants, we have rights,” Maria says. “We have rights and laws that protect us. We cannot let people violate those laws.”
The settlement was a good one, but Maria and her family suffered a terrible ordeal. In addition to being locked out of their home, they lost passports, birth certificates, and all of their photos and belongings. The money can’t replace what was lost or repair the trauma of the experience.
Larissa’s Story: An Intractable Landlord
When Larissa* first moved into a rented house, she found a number of problems, including a malfunctioning stove, oven, washer, and dryer. In addition, cracked stairs, missing handrails, holes in the floor, and improper gutters presented alarming safety issues for Larissa and her three children.
The landlord refused to complete repairs or provide basic essential services. Eventually, he issued an illegal notice to vacate during Governor Tim Walz’s eviction moratorium. Larissa then called Legal Aid.
“The repair issues were egregious,” notes Staff Attorney Sam Manning. “Larissa and her family were not safe in the premises as it stood. Also, the landlord was dishonest and predatory. He represented himself as the owner of the premises even though he was not. There was no rental license. He made multiple attempts to coerce Larissa into vacating her home in the middle of the pandemic!”
Prevailing in Housing Court
Manning defended Larissa in Housing Court, which held the landlord accountable for the conditions of the building. He helped Larissa receive reimbursement for repairs and purchases for items like sockets, faucets, stairs, carpets, and a dishwasher.
“Sam was deeply knowledgeable of the law and responsive to my needs,” Larissa says. “Legal Aid made sure the house had a proper cooking appliance so that I could make real meals for my kids. Previously, I had been forced to cook all our meals in a toaster oven.”
The court decision gave Larissa four months with no rent. Meanwhile, the property was sold to a different owner who allowed the family to stay until the end of the term lease.
“I was touched by Larissa’s grace in the face of tremendous pressure from her landlord,” says Manning. “This case was unusual in just how much the landlord tried to scam Larissa. It was gratifying to see a kind person like Larissa assert her rights and maintain her home in the face of opposition from a crook like her former landlord.”
A New Home
Larissa recently returned to work after nine months of unemployment due to COVID. She signed a lease for a new home for her and her kids.
“That housing situation was the most stressful, emotional situation I have ever experienced,” states Larissa. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without Legal Aid. I cannot thank them enough for all their hard work.”
One Household at a Time
The primary mission of Legal Aid’s housing unit is eviction defense, litigation to make homes healthy and safe, and protection of housing subsidies. This work is funded by grants based on the number of individuals served. Communities are empowered when individuals understand their rights and are able to defend themselves against exploitation and greed.
“I feel protected knowing I can put my trust in Legal Aid if I need assistance,” Larissa says. “They helped me feel secure that the situation would be handled.”
Most of Legal Aid’s work continues with smaller cases and quick hits against corrupt landlords and large property managers, serving individuals like Maria and Larissa. Although the unit has the infrastructure and access to information that lends itself to impact litigation, limited resources are a factor and larger cases must be carefully chosen. Meanwhile, the Legal Aid housing team halts injustice, helps families maintain their stability, and strengthens the community one household at a time.
*Names changed to protect client identity