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What are your rights as a renter? | Local expert weighs in on tenants' rights in Minnesota

Following the recent displacement of Historic Bell Lofts tenants, housing litigation experts want to ensure Minnesotan renters know their rights.

MINNEAPOLIS — After dozens of families were displaced from the Historic Bell Lofts in North Minneapolis, they were placed in a local hotel temporarily financed by the Bell Loft's management.

But three days later, residents received letter saying Historic Bell Lofts will no longer fund their stay, according to Minneapolis officials.

This begs these questions: Who should finance their stay? And can legal action be taken against the property owner?

These are all questions senior fellow at the National Housing Law Project and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law, Larry McDonough, believes all Minnesotan renters should know.

"Tenants and landlords have a rental obligation going back and forth. So, the tenant has an obligation to pay the rent and the landlord has an obligation to provide a well-maintained property through the end of the tenancy," said McDonough. "Just because it falls into disrepair, that doesn’t end the landlord’s obligation to the tenants."

McDonough continued saying the obligation continues no matter the location.

"If I paid for this month’s rent [and something like displacement happens] I shouldn't have to pay to shelter myself somewhere else. I have paid for shelter from you and if you can't provide that for me, you need to provide it somewhere else," said McDonough.

According to McDonough, it is only when the tenant decides to break their lease that their contractual relationship is over. 

"The law does give tenants that ability to break the lease when the property is uninhabitable. It doesn't have that reciprocal right for the landlord to say I’m done."

Another legal concept McDonough described tenants are entitled to in Minnesota is consequential damages, which is when a defendant can be found liable beyond the contractual agreement.

 "When a landlord doesn’t maintain the property, the basic claim tenants have is ‘give me the rent back’ but that doesn't cover the damage to the furniture," said McDonough.

When considering the Historic Bell Lofts displacement, McDonough continued, "I believe the landlord is liable for both a rent rebate because the tenants aren't living at the property but also the consequential damage of a couple of things: reimbursing for damaged property and paying for the tenants' shelter costs somewhere else."

McDonough says it is important for tenants to have the necessary legal assistance to take action and hold property owners accountable for their actions.

"You have rights to be housed and have safe shelter and the landlord has an obligation to provide that because you have been paying rent," said McDonough. "You have the right as a tenant to sue for that and I think you have a good chance of getting a judge or a referee to award you that kind of relief."

A Minnesota statute that applies to displacement is known as the Emergency Tenant Remedies Action. 

Under section 504B.395, subdivision 1, the Emergency Tenant Remedies Action says tenants can petition the court for assistance during an emergency, "involving the loss of running water, hot water, heat, electricity, sanitary facilities, or other essential services or facilities that the landlord is responsible for providing."

"In my view, the emergency in [the Bell Lofts] situation is continuing to pay for the tenant to be housed until the repair work is done is that the tenant can file a case and have a judge take a look at it almost immediately," said McDonough.

So, what are some free and low-cost resources for Minnesotan tenants?

HOME Line is a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization that provides " free and low-cost legal, organizing, education and advocacy services so that tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems," according to its website.

McDonough currently works part time as a policy attorney for HOME Line.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is a coalition of attorneys, staff and volunteers who "handle civil legal matters for Minnesota’s most vulnerable people for no charge."

"If tenants looking for representation to suing the landlord or negotiating with the landlord, [Mid-Minnesota] Legal Aid would be the best place to go," said McDonough.

Law Help MN is an free referral service that helps Minnesotans solve legal problems. It is a project under the Legal Services State Support of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition (MLSC), "a group of seven legal aid programs that help low-income residents with a variety of legal matters."

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