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Modern feudalism: tenant vs. landlord

by C.S. Hagen | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | October 4th, 2017

MOORHEAD – Water seeps into the Barbly family rental house, and has been leaking for two years, creating mold, eating away at trim, and forcing the family’s five children upstairs to sleep on the living room floor.

The company managing the property at 1510 34th Avenue South says the family is responsible, and linked the seepage to a sump pump hose placed too close to the building, and also to gutters, according to letters sent to the Barbly family.

Last week, after three years renting the two-story duplex, and a day before mother Hawa Barbly was going to send an official complaint to the company, the Barblys received a 30-day eviction notice from Prairie Property Management.

The Barbly family’s contract with Prairie Property Management states the family is only responsible for mowing the lawn and shoveling snow, Gabriel Barbly, the father, said. Minnesota law states that tenants are not responsible for property upkeep, unless written in the contract and provided reimbursement in writing for their work, supervising attorney for the Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Heidi Uecker said.

“That’s not the tenant’s problem,” Uecker said. “Under Minnesota law a tenant can be responsible for doing upkeep or repairs to the rental property, if they were responsible for sump pump care, location, repair issues, that has to be in their lease in writing, and they have to be compensated for doing so.

“Otherwise, they’d be a homeowner if they wanted to be responsible for a sump pump. That’s the landlord’s responsibility all day long.

Two years ago, Gabriel moved the sump pump line, but water still leaked in, he said. Gabriel is the pastor of the Bethel World Outreach Church – Fargo, at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, and his wife is a former dental assistant struggling through her fourth year battling cancer. Cancer forced her to quit her job at Apple Tree Dental, in Hawley, four years ago.

The Barblys have repeatedly tried to reach out to the Fargo-based property management company, but to little avail. Prairie Property Management is listed as a full-service property management company locally owned and operated since 1996, according to the company’s website. The company maintains more than 2,500 rental units, ranging from efficiency apartments to high-end townhomes.

Never before late on a monthly rental of $1,200, both have decent credit, Hawa Barbly said. Among other costs, the Barblys paid $157 out of pocket for a carpet cleaning, paid another $144 to have the sump pump hose redirected, and paid another bill of $1,278 for an inspection by Environmental Air Solution.

“There is something wrong with the foundation,” Gabriel said. “This is beyond me.”

Cookie-cutter duplexes to the Barbly’s left and right don’t have the same issues, Gabriel said.

“We don’t want to leave this for someone else.” Hawa said. An oxygen machine whirs beside her, pumping air into her nostrils. She began her fight with colon cancer, but Sanford documentation says the cancer has spread to her lungs. “We don’t want another family coming in here and experiencing the same problem.”

Downstairs, wood has rotted away from where water has leaked in. A chunk of wall has been cut out.

Hawa wrote a letter of complaint for “numerous ill-treatment” and was preparing to send it when she received the eviction notice. They’re trying to find a lawyer, but no one wants to take their case. Heidi Uecker said cases like Barblys’ might be exactly what her organization looks for.

“We called many times with issues and problems with the property, and your office will delay to attend to us; we didn’t push, assuming, maybe there was a load of repair calls,” Hawa wrote in the letter.

Gabrial and Hawa Barbly at home - photo by C.S. HagenThe family called on September 25 with two issues related to the leakage and ensuing mold. “We first called about this almost two years ago, your office again delayed to come in and when you finally sent someone in they only brought a huge blow dryer and ripped the carpet strips from that side of the walls, which have not been replaced since, and left.”

Concerned about her children’s health and her continuing battle with cancer, she made all her children sleep upstairs in the living room. A company repairman came a second time, citing gutter issues. The Barblys’ gutters are identical to houses on either side.

“I expect them to help us relocate, or pay the $1,200 for an inspection,” Hawa said. “But now they’re kicking us out. No lawyer will help us in Fargo, as they’re all in cahoots.”

“While we set high standards and utilize a process-driven approach, at the end of the day, our reputation is earned through a consistent commitment to service and by nurturing high-quality relationships,” the company’s website stated.

Repeated attempts were made to contact Prairie Property Management personnel responsible for the Barbly residence, but a company employee said unless the Barblys gave written permission to respond, they would not talk about the issue.

Gabriel said he gave a handwritten note to company management on Tuesday afternoon, and after repeated calls, no response was given.

If the Barblys do not move out before noon on Halloween, October 31, the management company stated they will be charged $2,500, as permitted by the state (holdover clause).

“There is no law that I am aware of that would allow the landlord to force them to pay $2,500,” Uecker said.

Although Uecker cannot comment on a specific case, she said a landlord cannot evict a tenant because they want repairs made. Such an eviction is called a retaliatory eviction.

“It happens a lot, especially to our poorest and most vulnerable of people, because they are scared to fight, because they are scared about getting a bad reference, they just leave and end up in shelters or on the streets because the landlord does this to them.”

By and large, Minnesota has much greater protection for tenants than the state of North Dakota does. Minnesota has programs allowing tenants and landlords to enter courts on their own to force a landlord to make repairs, Uecker said.

“If something is affecting people’s health and safety, we obviously pursue these things,” Uecker said. “We probably are the only organization of attorneys, it’s my job, providing good outcomes for people to avoid homelessness and to keep health and sanitary housing where they are at, is of utmost importance to us.”

Cody Schuler, executive director of the F-M Coalition for Homeless Persons, agreed that North Dakota is far behind Minnesota as to current legislation about fair housing.

“We need a tenant’s union in this state,” Michelle Rydz, of the High Plains Fair Housing Center, an advocacy organization in Grand Forks for fair housing, said. “Renters have no voice.”

A landlord is responsible for maintenance of premises, according to North Dakota law, and must comply with current building and housing codes affecting health and safety of tenants. A tenant is responsible for maintenance of the dwelling unit, complying with obligations such as keeping the area clean, safe, removing rubbish, keeping plumbing fixtures clean, and not to deliberately or negligently destroy part(s) of the premises.

A tenant may make repairs and deduct costs from the rent, according to North Dakota law.

At times, landlords also abuse their tenants and get away with it, Rydz said. That’s where her organization steps in.

“I have to say that as a fair housing advocate, I do see instances where some bad actors are targeting the most vulnerable, especially new Americans, because of the language barrier,” Rydz said.

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