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Tenants told to leave Newport complex

At least two dozen residents renting month-to-month are told to vacate their apartments by November 30. Some say they have no place else to go.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Crystal Rex led a group of fellow tenants in a chant outside their apartment building in Newport Wednesday morning.

"Where are we gonna go? Where are we gonna stay?"

For Rex it's more than a catch phrase. It's reality.  She's one of at least two dozen residents of The Wings of Newport that must find a new place to live before December.

Tenants received a letter from management Oct. 21 telling them they've got to vacate their apartments by Nov. 30.  It offered them $500 cash if they move out before Nov. 10, $300 cash if they leave on or before Nov. 30.

The letter warned that those who are still on premises after Nov. 30 will be subject to being evicted with a court order, known as an unlawful detainer, which will be a liability for those seeking new places to live.

"We're asking for more time, and at least some type of rental compensation to be placed and moved somewhere else, and with a voucher to help us," Rex told KARE.

She said many of those being told to move are over 55, and some say they have physical and mental challenges that make it harder for them to relocate seamlessly.

The tenants in question have been renting on a month-to-month basis, so the notice they received met the requirements of Minnesota law.

Tenant Lucretia Brewer said she was under the impression if she kept paying rent on time she could hold onto her place indefinitely.

"We didn't break our lease. We paid our rent. We didn't destroy anything," Brewer said. 

"We behaved!" she added, making the air quote sign with her hands. 

Landlord Chris Onken said he needs to temporarily clear the first, third and fourth floor of the complex to repair damage done by tenants. The building opened as a 55-plus community in 2020.

Onken said tenants could do rent month-to-month initially because management didn't want to wait for a full background check during the pandemic. He said those renters being displaced will have an opportunity to apply again after the restoration work is completed.

Washington County social workers are trying to find ways to help those facing eviction.

"Our estimate is that we have around 30 people with some significant vulnerabilities that could be displaced in a very few weeks," Jen Castillo, director of Washington County's Community Services Department, told KARE.

"The ability for us to be able to find stable housing at a time when there's scarce resources for housing already and cold weather's approaching, and COVID cases are rising, we have a lot of concern for the well-being of these residents."

The tenants facing eviction reached out to HomeLine, a nonprofit agency that advocates for renters.

"What I do at HomeLine is work with tenants in these kinds of crisis situations where large groups of folks might be displaced for different reasons," Erin West of HomeLine explained.

"I’m working with them now to figure out what we can do, how we can get people housed right now, to give them some more time at a bare minimum to figure out what their next steps are."

Some of the tenants who spoke to reporters said they believed they were being still being charged for amenities and services they're no longer receiving.

Onken rejected that contention. He said those being asked to leave are in a landlord-tenant relationship with The Wings of Newport, and not part of an assisted living facility.

The Wings of Newport was initially licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health to provide home care services to residents who needed them. The name on the license is Zumbro House Inc., which is a residential service for persons with disabilities founded by Onken in 2001.

He said he didn't seek to renew that license after July of 2021 because the state had changed the standards. For example, the new law required a commercial grade kitchen facility to be licensed as a home care provider or assisted living center.

Onken said the second floor of the Newport complex won't be affected by the repair work. That floor is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services for "integrated community supports" for residents over the age of 18 who receive disability waiver funding through the state.

According to DHS integrated community supports include:

  • Community participation (leisure, recreation and socialization planning);
  • Health safety and wellness (supervision or training to complete self-care activities or health support);
  • Household management (training or guidance with budgeting, cooking, household chores, etc.); and
  • Adaptive skills (problem solving, implementation of positive support strategies)

Tenants received a letter in May informing them that The Wings of Newport could no longer provide Customized Living Services effective July 14.  In June, management sent tenants a letter that offered the chance to sign up for Integrated Community Supports.

That letter said rents wouldn't increase for the time being, so a one-bedroom unit would remain at $600 per month and a two-bedroom apartment would be $1,000 per month. It set a deadline of June 10 to express interest.

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