Mohamed Mohamed came to Minnesota with a flawless rental history. When he and his large family moved into an apartment in St. Cloud, the landlord charged a deposit of $1,800. That seemed high, but Mohamed paid it, not knowing that $600 of that was a “high-risk fee.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual situation,” says Dean Treftz, Staff Attorney in Legal Aid’s St. Cloud office. Treftz’s work is funded by a grant from the Central Minnesota Community Foundation that focuses on housing issues faced by the East African immigrant community. “The Somali community has a reputation for paying their bills, and they also have English proficiency issues and are sometimes not familiar with their rights. Some landlords are running with that.”
Mohamed’s new apartment had a number of problems. The stove only had one working burner, the bathroom sink leaked, and the refrigerator didn’t cool properly. After eight months, Mohamed decided to move.
Following the provisions of the lease, Mohamed found a new tenant to move in and paid a $700 fee for early move-out. But when he spoke to the landlord, she said he had broken the lease and would not receive any of his deposit back.
Mohamed found an English speaker who went over the lease carefully to confirm Mohamed’s understanding. They went together to confront the landlord. She backtracked and agreed that Mohamed had followed the lease and did not forfeit his security deposit.
Mohamed and his family left the apartment in spotless condition and moved out 10 days early, giving the landlord time to prepare the apartment for the next tenant. He fully expected to receive his full security deposit, as he had at his last residence.
Several weeks later, Mohamed received a check for only $114 of the $1,800 deposit. An attached invoice listed over $900 worth of vague cleaning and repair costs and noted that the $600 “high-risk fee” would not be returned. At that point, Mohamed contacted Legal Aid.
A Favorable Ruling
“Mohamed would have had a tough time representing himself,” Treftz says. “It’s hard enough to make a specific legal argument pro se, but for a non-English speaker, it would be very difficult.”
The conciliation court judge agreed that the landlord could not withhold the high-risk fee, and that the cleaning fee was excessive. He ordered the landlord to return an additional $1,100 to Mohamed.
“It bothered me that they tried to keep my money,” Mohamed says. “But the mistreatment really upset me. We were at our last rental for eight years and got all of our money back. That tells you what kind of person I am.”
Community Grant Makes an Impact for Immigrant Families
Treftz sees many cases like Mohamed’s in his work with the Community Foundation grant. The goal of the grant is to prevent homelessness by protecting rent subsidies, opposing unlawful efforts to evict tenants, and ensuring that unlawful charges and penalties are not assessed.
“There are lots of people who don’t know their rights in regard to this kind of problem,” says Mohamed. “Legal Aid gives really good assistance to people like me.”
Legal Aid staff, including a native Somali speaker, meet regularly with Somali elders and leaders who have raised concerns about landlords taking advantage of Somali clients. The grant increases Legal Aid’s ability to investigate systemic issues and problem landlords, and to prevent and identify issues through community education. If tenants use check lists and photos to document move-in and move-out conditions and make all repair requests in writing, they have evidence that Legal Aid can use if problems arise.
“It’s a pleasure to do this work,” Treftz says. “It feels very necessary to remind the immigrant community that there are people who want to show them they are welcome here.”