Add it to the list of things we should have learned in school: how to rent an apartment and what rights renters have.
Despite housing being one of the most critical aspects of living, HomeLine attorney Mike Vraa pointed out that there’s no required training on how to rent an apartment.
“The thing about housing is it’s the biggest cost in almost everybody’s life. From the day you’re 18 to the day you die, it’s where you’re living,” he said. “You don’t need a license to rent or a class, like you do for driving, but you do it wrong and it can have a huge impact on your life.”
Over half of Minneapolis residents are renters, and in Southwest neighborhoods like Whittier and Stevens Square-Loring Heights, the number is over 80%.
While the vast majority of renters don’t have problems with their landlords or barely even interact with them, choosing a rental company or landlord is a serious decision because there can be serious, long-term consequences to problems with landlords.
The good news is that tenants have rights.
Attorneys like Vraa at HomeLine, a nonprofit tenant advocacy group, educate renters on their rights and support them when they have problems, whether that means fighting for a security deposit, working with a landlord to avoid an eviction and anything in between. Housing law is highly specific because renters’ rights vary across states and even cities, making it harder for tenants to research their own rights.
I asked Vraa about the process of looking and applying for rentals and what to do when conflicts arise.
Looking and applying for housing
While shopping around for a new landlord, Google is one of the most powerful tools available to renters. Search the landlord and company name and read Google and Yelp reviews, plus any newspaper articles about them.
To dig deeper, check the Minnesota Court Information System to see if there have been lawsuits filed against the landlord or company or vice versa. Most big companies will have many cases, but Vraa said to look past the evictions for lawsuits against landlords for failing to return a security deposit and rent escrows, meaning lawsuits against landlords for failing to make maintenance repairs. These are the more concerning cases because most tenants don’t bother to fight landlords when they think they’re being cheated. For every one case of a tenant suing for their security deposit, there are likely many, many more tenants who didn’t go to the trouble.
Another huge aspect of renting is considering roommates, even when your roommate is a partner or spouse, because you have to rely on this person to pay their portion of the rent or else it’s your responsibility.
“If you sign the contract together, even if you’re married and you get a divorce, the lease doesn’t end,” Vraa said. “Everybody’s still locked into the contract.”
He said that this $10-20 thousand commitment is a “serious business partnership,” and he recommends that newbies don’t move in with their high school best friends to reduce chances of ruining the friendship. For couples, Vraa said to consider a month-to-month lease instead of a year-long commitment, although monthly leases can cost more.
Once you put down an application for a rental, the landlord or company will look at four pieces of your story: income, credit, and your criminal and eviction history. According to Vraa, the recent eviction history is the single most important part of an application.
“So many landlords will say, ‘I’m just not going to rent to a recent eviction, not going to do it.’ The criminal record, probably not even a close second in my mind,” he said.
Some landlords won’t rent to a person who was recently evicted even if they pay the entire year’s rent up front. The key word here is “recent.” In Minneapolis, landlords can only check up to three year back for an eviction, an ordinance that many landlords in Southwest opposed. The city is unique, however; federally, landlords can look back to seven years.
Many people who have been recently evicted live with family or friends for six months to a year until a landlord will rent to them.
Dealing with landlords
For most of Vraa’s career, security deposits have been the most common reason for renters to call asking for help. Renters put down a security deposit, which is typically the same as a month’s rent, when they secure their home and the landlord refunds the money at the end of the lease unless there is damage “beyond ordinary wear and tear.”
Getting your security deposit back
Landlords try to maximize their profits by improperly keeping the security deposit, and many tenants don’t argue. Though Minneapolis has setcurity deposit caps, landlords elsewhere can adjust a security deposit for renters with bad credit or a recent eviction.
Vraa said that he helped one renter, whose income was $31,000, get their $3600 deposit back. That deposit was over 10% of this person’s annual income.
“Trying to get a deposit back again might seem like it’s not as important as something like an eviction, but to a lot of our clients, it really is very critical,” he said.
Landlords have 21 days to return tenants’ security deposits after the lease ends. If a landlord misses this deadline, then the tenant can sue for twice the deposit.
When tenants believe their landlord is improperly keeping their security deposit, Vraa sometimes recommends that the tenant goes to small claims court. The procedure costs $70 and doesn’t require a lawyer, making it more approachable than other types of court. When tenants go to small claims court, they tell a judge their story, oftentimes with photos or other pieces of evidence.
“It is court, so I don’t mean to minimize it, but it’s about as user-friendly as court gets,” Vraa said. “I have talked probably as many people out of filing at small claims court as I talked into filing at small claims court just because I didn’t think their case was that strong. But nobody’s going to file a small claims court case against their landlord for their deposit back if they didn’t think they were ripped off somehow.”
This year is the first in Vraa’s nearly 30 years at HomeLine that calls about evictions have eclipsed those about security deposits. Since all pandemic-related tenant protections ended on June 1, many renters are facing evictions.
According to Vraa, avoiding a filed eviction is critical to future renting. Since about 90% of evictions relate to tenants not paying rent, the easiest way to avoid eviction is to pay rent. While landlords threaten eviction due to noise complaints, they rarely follow through if the tenant pays rent.
“Landlords care about the money coming in,” he said. “Landlords are not in the eviction business, they’re in rent collection.”
A tenant’s problems begin the moment their landlord files an eviction, because no matter the eviction court’s outcome, the tenant’s rental history shows that an eviction was filed.
“If you’ve never gone through an eviction, it’s a terrifying process,” Vraa said.
Tenants only show up to their eviction court dates about half the time. While the sessions are now held virtually, Vraa described eviction court as one of the worst places in the world.
“In Hennepin and Ramsey County where they have housing courts where they do nothing really but evictions, they’re right up there with the most miserable things you’ll see,” he said. “It feels very factory-like, like an eviction factory.”
There are resources to avoid the “eviction factory,” including the HomeLine hotline for free legal help and Minnesota’s Emergency Assistance program for low-income families. Individual neighborhood associations, like the Whittier Alliance, also help Minneapolis renters access tenant resources.
Vraa said that since the pandemic and the tenant protections that ensued, he’s watched landlords grow bitter against tenants in a way he’s never seen. Usually, he said, landlords feel somewhat indifferent towards tenants. When the eviction moratoriums were in effect, he said that landlords scoffed at tenants who they claimed bought new phones or cars while they didn’t pay rent.
“There’s a little more animosity in the air, mostly from landlords against tenants, because landlords think that tenants gamed the system,” Vraa said.