Housing Court, Yes I Went There

I was hoping this post would be about my unopposed triumph at housing court last week, but court isn’t about winning. As one friend put it, court reliably makes everyone a little happy and a little disappointed.

Why did I got to court?

I was trying to get out of my lease, because my next door neighbor is an AirBnB with a revolving door of late-night parties on the weekends. My building management virtually refused to get involved. I contested that this is a breech of my lease, which has an implied covenant of habitability and quiet enjoyment. In other words, loud parties have kept me from using my apartment as intended (for sleep), so I told my landlords (via the court) they were in breech of the terms of my lease.

After 6 months of this absolute circus, relief is on its way. I will be living elsewhere by March 14th.

Basically, this involved sending a letter citing the specific law I thought they were breaking at least 14 days before rent was due. Then, when property management failed to respond in any way to the letter, I filed an affidavit and paid my rent to the court instead of to my building. It cost $70 to file. My court date was set when I filed for just 2 weeks later.

I represented myself. Lawyers are expensive, and most people file pro se (without a lawyer) for this type of case. I gathered every piece of documentation I could think of from floor plans to emails to phone records. I even included an ultrasound of my unborn child and doctor’s notes from Kevin’s sleep doctor. It was a lot of work, but I knew I needed all of it to make my case.

I wore my most fitted dress, to show off my six-month pregnant belly. I didn’t have to fake my waddle, and I brought a pillow to sit on.

I got nervous. I reviewed my material and talked over every possible angle we’d need to anticipate from the apartment’s lawyers.

Then, it turned out that before appearing before the judge, I’d have to sit down and negotiate with the apartment’s lawyer. If we couldn’t reach a settlement after that, I would present all my documentation and the court referee would decide if it merited a trial. This being my first time in court, I didn’t know that at all and had come prepared to present an argument to a judge.

The negotiation took place in a little room with me, the lawyer, the property manager, and Kevin. The lawyer and I did 99% of the talking. Kevin graciously carried my things. The lawyer started by saying there’s no way a noise complaint case would win in a trial and that the tenant legal hotline (Home Line) we used should stop telling tenants to file Rent Escrow over noise problems. This was gratuitous, and he shouldn’t have said that, knowing I didn’t have counsel. Further, he was lying, but I’ll get to that later. Next, he hammered at my request of 2 months rent abatement. According him, there was no way the property company would agree to return 2 months worth of rent to us. When I held my ground and asked why the property manager’s written promises for fines and eviction had gone nowhere, we moved on to the actual offer.

The offer: Get out of of the lease at no cost. Pay rent for the remaining time we live there with a move out date of March 31.

Everything prior to this offer was intended to make me feel uncertain about my course of action and grateful for the offer once it came. Moving out was always going to be more important than getting money. The lawyer knew that. Also, moving out was the most likely outcome if we had gone to trial. The money was always a long shot. I knew that.

At this point, Kevin and I spoke privately, decided to take the rent abatement off the table for a move out date of March 1.  I knew they’d say no, so I was prepared to accept March 14, the date I requested in the affidavit.

After this, the lawyer and property manger spoke privately. When they came back, they agreed to a March 14 move out date. We filled out some paperwork, submitted it to the court clerk, and waited for our case to be called again.

When it was called, the lawyer and I stood before the judge, who read our settlement agreement, made sure those terms were what both parties agreed to, and dismissed us. I waited in the lobby until the court order was printed. The lawyer went to deal with his other cases that day.

Back to the lawyer lies: Minnesota courts have ruled in favor of tenants regarding noise disturbances. Those cases had documented complaints with failed intervention on the part of the landlord, usually over a the course of many months. While our case didn’t meet every detail of the cases I read about, it fit a lot of them. The main difference was the amount of time a tenant went before filing rent escrow. I couldn’t afford to wait longer as a pregnant person, and I couldn’t deal directly with the problem tenant. Plus courts generally don’t really like AirBnB. All this is to say that trial would have been a bit of a gamble, but probably not to the degree that the lawyer wanted me to think it was.

Additionally, Home Line’s advice to file Rent Escrow was extremely effective insofar as, prior to filing, my landlords were offering terrible solutions that would have required us to downsize while expecting a baby or pay them more money to fix a problem they created. Once I filed, we got what we wanted. They had to pay an expensive lawyer. We had to pay $70. At the end of the day, we are only paying for half a month more in rent than we had originally planned when we started negotiating in January. But the property company paid a lawyer more than we pay in half a month’s rent. They also have to list the apartment, show it, and they still have a disruptive AirBnB to deal with, regardless of who is in our unit.

Maybe there aren’t winners in court, but this time there was definitely a loser, and it wasn’t me.

If you care about tenants rights and access to safe, habitable housing for all, please consider donating to Home Line. Most of the tenants taking on their landlords were dealing with unattended repairs. Home Line operates in Minnesota to help these folks who have fewer resources and worse living conditions.

If you are a tenant with a problem landlord, call Home Line. It is free.