Eleven weeks after the May 22 tornado ripped through north Minneapolis, the phone at Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis rings twice a day, on average, with someone affected by the storm calling for help.
Often, the one picking up the phone is Drew Schaffer, recently appointed tornado response coordinator. He and other volunteer lawyers at Legal Aid and another Minneapolis group are doing pro bono work for 145 tornado victims in the low-income area.
To Schaffer, the volume of calls understates the level of need in the community, based on the kinds of landlord-tenant problems that have cropped up since the tornado. He has heard of landlords not returning security deposits after residents have left uninhabitable homes, delaying repairs and threatening eviction of tenants who refuse to pay back rent for time when their unit was uninhabitable.
The Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, which provides free civil legal services to low-income and senior residents of Hennepin County, received a $10,000 grant after the tornado from the Foundation for Children of the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi and the Minneapolis Foundation for recovery assistance work.
Legal Aid is working closely with the Volunteer Lawyers Network, a legal services provider for low-income people that's helping homeowners with insurance problems.
Kyle Fogt, a Faegre & Benson lawyer who volunteers through the network, said one client, Tifini Monegan, has not received her security deposit from her ex-landlord after the property was condemned. City law requires the return of a security deposit or an explanation for why it is not returned within five days of a tenant providing a forwarding address.
Monegan, 27, stayed in her three-bedroom home with two children as the electricity went out for five days. Feces leaked into the basement from the bathroom for two weeks after the tornado. She was afraid to move to a homeless shelter for fear of not being able to find other housing.
After the house was condemned, Monegan was forced to move to transitional housing. With Fogt's help, she sued her landlord in conciliation court. Her hearing, set for October, seeks $3,175 to recover her deposit, punitive damages and rent overpayment.
Monegan's former landlord, Steven Meldahl, said he mailed her a letter explaining why he would not return the deposit. He said she owed rent. He believes she purposely damaged the sewer line, then refused to let a repair person in to fix it.
Meldahl, who had 28 homes affected by the tornado and has been a landlord for more than 41 years, said he thinks some people abuse the system.
"A lot of these folks tend to embellish their situation," he said. "I had a tenant evicted two weeks prior to the tornado who absolutely trashed the place, and then they were on the news saying, 'Oh, we lost our house.'"
Schaffer and Fogt said they are surprised more people haven't sought legal help. Staff from both groups knocked on more than 425 doors to distribute information in June and spread word of their availability at many community events.
Monegan said she believes many of her neighbors are reluctant to consider legal action against their landlords, who could decide to evict them.
"I think others are intimidated about not being able to keep properties and don't want to be forced to have to live in a shelter," she said. "This is hindering me from moving on."
Tornado victims seeking legal help can call Legal Aid's intake line, 612-332-1441.