A hearing in Ramsey County court Wednesday could affect whether as many as 60 low-income families can stay in their homes.
The families live in two apartment buildings that are going through foreclosure in the Payne Phalen neighborhood north of downtown St. Paul. In the Westminster Court apartments, city inspectors have found the buildings so riddled with housing code violations that they could be condemned.
It's a problem made worse by the tight rental market, and it's one other cities also face.
The oven door hangs wide open in the apartment Aminah James shares with her four young children.
"This is what's keeping us warm, running the oven," James said. "This ain't good, safe, with the kids."
The radiators in the unit are unreliable, James said. And that's just one of the problems. She opens a cupboard, and little brown beetles go scurrying.
"Look. Crawling all out everywhere."
She charges into the bathroom. The toilet doesn't flush.
"I gotta flush it like this," James said, reaching her hand into the toilet tank to pull the drain plug.
The sink is clogged. Cloudy water fills the basin.
"Won't even go down, this water. It's been like that for the longest."
James said she's reported all these problems to her landlord, but nothing's been fixed. Late last year, city inspections found some 600 code violations between this building and the one next door.
"From my perspective in St. Paul, that's pretty bad," said Ricardo Cervantes, who directs the city's department of safety and inspections.
"I think it's an absolute shame that the tenants in this case and in many other cases are being impacted at the negligence of the landlords and the owners," Cervantes said.
Peggy Chun owns the two buildings along with her husband Randall. When asked for comment, Chun issued a written statement. She accused the city of employing what she called a "code to the max" policy, and she said she was making "every effort to remedy all deficiencies."
The city has given Chun until Jan. 18 to do that make repairs. If they don't, officials could deem some or all of the units uninhabitable. The city council has asked for a court-appointed receiver to take over managing the buildings, which are currently going through foreclosure. If a judge grants that motion at today's hearing, city officials say it offers a chance to repair the problems and minimize disruption for the tenants.
The case highlights the difficult balancing act for cities when they enforce their building codes for rental properties. City officials want to discipline landlords who fail to maintain buildings, but don't want to kick poor, vulnerable tenants out of their homes.
The Minneapolis City Council voted last month to delay the eviction of more than a dozen families who live in buildings owned by a landlord whose rental license has been revoked.
Minneapolis housing policy director Tom Streitz says the city is also offering special assistance to Ronald Folger's tenants.
"We're not sitting around thinking, 'Gee, if this happens, what are we going to do?'" Streitz said. "We're actively planning to help any tenants, should that be the case if they are displaced. We'll have a plan in place to help them find new housing."
The city is taking extra care, Streitz said, because it is difficult to find an apartment in the metro area these days, especially one that is affordable for low-income renters. The Twin Cities rental vacancy rate is at a 10-year low because the foreclosure crisis has turned many homeowners back into renters.
It's also created a lot of first-time landlords. Tom Deegan is in charge of housing inspections for Minneapolis, and he first noticed the trend a few years ago.
"We were seeing more properties being sold at a lesser price," Deegan said. "Folks who had not normally, shall we say, been in the rental market now were looking at this as a way to invest and increase their income."
Some of those new landlords have had trouble keeping their properties up to code, Deegan said. Minneapolis revoked 95 rental licenses last year — that's more than five times the number the city revoked just two years earlier. Deegan said the city could institute landlord training classes to improve the situation.
St. Paul officials are reviewing their protocols so they can catch problem properties sooner, before they face the prospect of displacing tenants.