'Can’t trust them’: U students displaced by building delays testify to lawmakers

Apartment building mug
Traffic cones, plastic wrap and stacks of wooden pallets are scattered in front of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday, as the new apartment rushes to finish construction after delaying its opening in August.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

More than 100 University of Minnesota students at the Twin Cities campus have been forced to stay in hotels with limited resources or travel long commutes from home to get to school after a new apartment complex in Dinkytown has pushed off opening by a month.

That’s because student renters say Identity Dinkytown won’t let them out of their leases, even though the building hasn’t officially opened to tenants yet. Identity Dinkytown is a mixed-use apartment complex being built on land steps from campus that was previously occupied by a McDonald’s. The building has amenities including a sauna, coffee lounge, tanning beds and study rooms.

Renters were first informed on Aug. 2 that the building would not be ready for its original Aug. 27 open date and instead would open Sept. 15, even after tenants paid rent on Aug. 1. Identity has confirmed the planned move-in date for the fourth, fifth and sixth floors is Sept. 29 and the remaining floors will move in three weeks later in mid-October. 

But they don’t have the city’s approval to let people move in yet, and renters are worried about the potential for more delays. Students began moving into U residence halls on Aug. 27 and classes began Sept. 6. 

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“I’ve never seen a project this far behind,” Dan McConnell, president of the Minnesota State Building Trades Council, said during a hearing Wednesday with a joint state Senate committee investigating Identity’s displacement of residents. He’s worked on projects like this before and said it’s “unimaginable” that Identity Dinkytown didn’t know months in advance that the building wouldn’t be ready.

On Thursday, parts of the exterior of the building were fenced off and covered in plastic and at least one window was missing.

A windowless window of an apartment building under construction
A window is missing on the fourth floor of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

To compromise with tenants who had to deal with a delayed move-in date, Identity offered two options: We’ll put you in a hotel and give you an $80 gift card for every day you’re delayed, or you can find your own housing and we’ll give you $150 per day.

But according to three student renters who testified during the hearing, it’s still unclear when the apartment complex will open.

Aria Mahan-Cleveland, a U sophomore and leaseholder, says the construction delay and limited communication with Identity has negatively impacted her school year.

“If I am able to move in at the end of September I'll have to move in in the middle of a construction site,” said Mahan-Cleveland. “Much of my time is spent studying and the amenities such as study rooms will not be available at the Identity and the property managers have no information to share with us regarding a timeline of when the amenities will be ready.”

Once Mahan-Cleveland found out she wasn’t going to be able to move in on the original date, she chose to commute an hour each day to and from school.

“I have to spend a great amount of time on the road commuting to and from classes instead of using my time to study,” she said. “It’s added an additional layer of stress and uncertainty.”

A person testifying at a Senate committee hearing
Aria Mahan-Cleveland, a second-year transfer at the University of Minnesota, testifies virtually about the delayed opening of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Student: ‘I'm missing out on a big part of my life’

Others, like junior Wajid Suliman, didn’t plan to be a commuter either. She had big dreams after she said she signed a lease way back in late 2020 for a five bedroom, five bathroom unit with her friends, but instead has been driving to school from her parents home in Bloomington.

“Now being on campus makes me feel like I'm missing out on a big part of my life and living at home has been extremely lonely,” said Suliman.

“I do not find it fair at all if they expect us to move in and pay our rent for that semester and expect as nothing happened, especially if there's going to be construction happening through the first or third floor,” she said.

She’s also worried about the building’s safety. On Aug. 23 during an inspection, the city’s building inspectors found the work was “not complete enough” to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy, Katherine Topinka, intergovernmental relations director for Minneapolis, said during the hearing.

The apartment complex will need another inspection, but Topinka said on Wednesday that the management company had not yet reached out to city’s inspectors to redo it. Apartments typically need a temporary occupancy license to start moving renters in as construction is finishing.

“How I feel about the entire management right now is that I just can't trust them,” said Suliman.

Construction workers at an apartment building
Construction workers outside of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Emalyn Goodart was able to get out of her lease on a “technicality.” Originally from Georgia, she had nowhere else to stay aside from a hotel room provided by Identity. But she was uncomfortable with the accommodations, which didn’t have access to kitchens or microwaves and only had one coin-operated washer and dryer.

“Everyone we spoke to was made aware that my family was nowhere near Minneapolis and we were uncomfortable with the housing accommodations provided,” said Goodart. “Each time we're met with, ‘I understand but there's nothing we can do.’” 

She said she emailed and called Identity’s leasing office every day in August to get out of her lease, but realized through getting legal assistance from the U’s Student Legal Service that the property manager never signed her lease so she was never held to the rental agreement.

She’s one of well over 100 students who have been calling Student Legal Service on campus. Shana Tomenes, staff attorney at Student Legal Service, said they’ve been getting calls every day.

“The most common sentiment I hear in my office is the feeling of being deceived and the feeling of feeling stuck or that they’re being held captive,” said Tomenes.

She said these student experiences are a “product of uneven bargaining power that renters have when signing their lease.”

An apartment doorway with plastic and traffic cones
Plastic wrap lines the exterior of Identity Dinkytown, a new mixed-use apartment complex on Thursday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Identity Dinkytown: Construction delays were ‘unavoidable’

Identity’s management team, CA Student Living Dinkytown II, LLC, was not present at the committee meeting, citing it was too “short notice.”

“The excuse of not having enough time to prepare is ironic, considering the lack of notice that they have given to their tenants,” said State Sen. Omar Fateh, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Tenants have filed two lawsuits against Identity Dinkytown and are seeking an end to their lease and reimbursement of rent money as well as attorney’s fees. The joint Senate committee said in the next legislative session they will work to strengthen legal protections for renters.

Identity declined to comment on pending litigation but shared the following statement with MPR News.

“We understand that the delay is disappointing and inconvenient for students,” said an emailed statement from Identity. “We want each student’s experience with Identity Dinkytown to be seamless and this isn’t how we wanted to start our journey together. While unavoidable construction delays have impacted anticipated move-in dates, we are working directly with the contractor who has assured us they are doing everything they can to complete the remaining construction as quickly as possible. We are hopeful to have students moving in by the end of the month. In the meantime, we are committed to transparency and will provide students with regular updates until then.” 

Construction materials stand by apartment
Construction materials stand next to pillar at Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News