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Wendy Reuer, Published February 27 2013

Almost out in the cold: Landlord backs off eviction, but couple’s case highlights lack of help in ND rental disputes

FARGO - For nearly three months, John Mason feared he and his wife, Rachel, would be evicted from their south Fargo apartment because they refused to pay rent for December a second time.

The rent drop-off box inside Stonebridge Apartments was burglarized and money orders Mason used to pay December rent were stolen. Mason worked with a police detective to provide his landlord – Goldmark Property Management – with records to show the orders had been cashed, but he still received notice Jan. 30 that he would be evicted on Friday if he didn’t pay.

“I don’t think it’s right that I should have to pay my rent a second time,” he said. “I did everything I possibly could; I jumped through all the hoops.”

After The Forum first contacted Goldmark last week, the Masons received an email from Goldmark late Wednesday afternoon confirming they wouldn’t have to repay the $700 rent.

Mason said while the battle to stave off eviction was tough, what struck him as most alarming is that North Dakota, unlike neighboring Minnesota, has no statewide agency to assist in disputes between tenants and landlords.

“I feel like someone should start something that helps tenants and landlords,” he said.

Help depends on state

Renters have far fewer resources in North Dakota than in Minnesota, said attorney Jesse Matson of Matson Law Firm in Fargo.

“There’s nothing to stop landlords,” Matson said. “There’s actually a small percentage (of renters) that are actually going to do something. The number of people that actually take them to court is so small.”

That was the case with the Masons. The couple felt they were in the right all along, but they plan to buy a house in the next few months and feared the financial strain of hiring a lawyer as well as the burden an eviction notice would put on their credit.

In Fargo, rental properties have been on the rise since 1960. The 2010 census found that 44 percent of the city’s residents – nearly 47,000 people – lived in rental housing.

“Most of our tenants are college kids, and landlords are able to take advantage of them because they have no idea what to do,” Matson said.

Matson said there will be more renters as North Dakota’s population grows, and more tenant resources will be needed.

What is available

In Minnesota, HOME Line is a 25-year-old statewide tenant advocacy organization. The nonprofit offers advice to tenants from attorneys and law students.

Mike Vraa, managing attorney at HOME Line, said on average, the organization receives 69 calls from Clay County each year, 63 from Moorhead.

“Mostly, it’s just people trying to figure out what are the rules, what are my rights as a tenant,” Vraa said. “Sometimes we will tell them what your landlord is doing is actually legal, but they need to hear that from someone other than their landlord.”

Vraa said tenants can also get direct questions answered from HOME Line by email. HOME Line is for Minnesota residents only.

In Minneapolis’ Hennepin County, the 4th District Housing Court is a specialty court that handles landlord and tenant disputes. While landlords can bring eviction action through housing court, tenants can also ask the court to enforce their rights. Ramsey County, home of St. Paul, also has a housing court.

North Dakota does not have any housing courts.

Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the state attorney general, said there is a fact sheet on the attorney general’s website outlining tenant rights, but for help with a dispute, she suggested that tenants talk to a private attorney.

If a tenant feels he or she is being discriminated against as a member of a protected class, they can contact local Housing Authorities or file a complaint with the Human Rights Division of the state Department of Labor, said Lisa Gefroh, president of the North Dakota Apartment Association. The group represents apartment units, management companies and apartment communities.

Housing Authorities and the Department of Labor do not mediate disputes outside of discrimination cases, Brocker said.

In Fargo, the Greater Red River Apartment Association, made up of about 80 property managers and owners, helps property managers provide the best service they can to tenants, Gefroh said. But residents who have a problem should take it up with their property manager, she said.

In addition to small claims court, tenants can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

In 2012, the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota received 60 complaints from renters, with 26 being filed against North Dakota businesses. Ninety-six percent of the complaints were resolved, said Dan Hendrickson, communications coordinator for the BBB in St. Paul.

Of the 26 North Dakota complaints, about a dozen involved Goldmark, Hendrickson said. He said Goldmark is the largest property management company in this area.

Hendrickson said a tenant rights advocacy group in North Dakota could help prevent tenant/landlord disputes from reaching the BBB. But because all leases differ, he said, “It’s always going to be rife with conflict on some level.”

Hendrickson said most complaints stem from lease and deposit return issues. He had not heard of a case similar to the Masons’.

“That’s a dicey one,” he said.

A rare case

Matson said the Masons’ case is difficult because there is no specific North Dakota law that covers the situation. Leases are governed by contract law and cover most disputes, but other laws can apply to the handling of checks and money orders.

In Matson’s opinion, the payment was made when it was placed in Goldmark’s drop box.

In an email to The Forum on Wednesday, Kurt Bollman, Goldmark chief financial officer, said “the situation as a part of our normal process has been resolved, and was done so to John’s satisfaction.”

Bollman said in the email that the company had to examine all the facts of the case, which took time.

Gefroh said a burglarized rent box is not a common occurrence property managers deal with in the metro area. The only similar incident she could recall was in 1997.

Vraa agreed that Goldmark was right to investigate the matter.

“You hear that a lot, somebody stole my rent, especially with money orders,” Vraa said. “I guarantee you though, if the tenant had been robbed on the way to pay the rent, the landlord would still expect them to pay.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530