After an outcry from elderly residents and state lawmakers, a large senior living complex in Coon Rapids has reversed plans to impose double-digit rent increases that could have uprooted dozens of longtime neighbors and splintered the community.
In a letter sent Tuesday, the operator of Autumn Glen Senior Living apologized for not communicating directly with residents about rent hikes of 15 to 30 percent that took effect in January. The operator said it would instead limit the rent increase to 4 percent and promised to provide a clear explanation for any future rent increases of 5 percent or more. “We hope these adjustments will make your apartment feel like home again as we work together in supporting your future needs here,” wrote Dan Dixon, president and chief executive of Guardian Angels Senior Services of Elk River, a nonprofit organization that manages the facility for a group of private investors.
The decision marks a dramatic change in fortunes for the roughly 100 seniors who live at Autumn Glen, a complex that includes apartments, assisted living and memory care.
For nearly two months, residents had challenged the rent increases with limited success. They formed a committee, called legislators and city council members, circulated a petition signed by more than 40 residents, and demanded a meeting with the facility’s private investors. Instead, they were referred to Guardian Angels Senior Services, which said it was unable to explain the reason for the rent increases.
“They underestimated our persistence,” said Janet Dahlquist, 85, who started looking for a new place to live after her rent at Autumn Glen went from $2,600 to $3,000 a month. “I think they thought we were old and frail and unable to speak up. But we were very determined to shake people up about this — and we did.”
Elder-care advocates say the case highlights the general lack of consumer protections for the roughly 60,000 Minnesotans who live in senior facilities across the state. Minnesota is one of just a handful of states that does not license these facilities, which means that elderly residents have few protections against sudden rent hikes and evictions. Despite the vulnerability of their residents, assisted-living facilities fall under the same landlord-tenant rules that govern ordinary rental properties and apartment buildings.
A state work group, which convened late last year to address breakdowns in the state’s oversight of senior facilities, called on state lawmakers to develop a licensing system for assisted-living facilities.
Cheryl Hennen, Minnesota’s long-term care ombudsman, said steep rent increases at senior facilities have become more common and carry a public cost, because they can deplete seniors’ assets and force people to enroll in the state-federal Medicaid insurance program much sooner.
“There is an imbalance of power,” Hennen said. “It’s not that easy for this group to get up and move. ... The whole regulatory structure needs to be looked at.”
Residents at Autumn Glen were first notified of the higher rents just before Christmas. The hikes were so steep — between $300 to $500 a month — that several residents on fixed incomes simply moved out. Others said they wanted to move but health problems and a lack of alternatives forced them to stay and pay the higher rents.
However, after the Star Tribune published a story Sunday about the situation, it drew the attention of several key lawmakers and elder-care advocates. At a Senate committee hearing Monday, Sens. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, expressed alarm about the potential impact on a vulnerable group of seniors, including many with serious ailments and disabilities.
“These folks don’t have a chance to shop, and when they do move, they often die ... because they are not familiar with the setting,” said Abeler, chairman of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. “People’s lives are at stake here.”
Andrea Swayne, vice president and chief operating officer at Guardian Angels, said the rent increase was intended to bring Autumn Glen’s rates “up to market.” Its rents had been underpriced compared to the market in Anoka County and the northwest metro area, she said. “We are fully aware that the rate increases should have occurred in steps rather than all at once,” Swayne said in a written statement.
By early Tuesday, however, the operators of Autumn Glen had reversed course. In a meeting with residents, executives with Guardian Angels said they would reduce the rent increases to 4 percent retroactive to Jan. 1. They also promised to explain any future increases of 5 percent or more and cited wage pressures or residents’ requests for more amenities as examples of possible reasons.
As the news spread on Tuesday, residents reacted with a mix of joy and trepidation.
“People kept hugging me and saying, ‘Can you believe it? Can you believe it?’ ” said Joyce Beyer, 75, who had helped organize the residents’ committee. Others expressed concern that it took weeks of letters and phone calls to reverse the rent hike and that no one at the facility had sought to explain it.
“You have to remember that this was really traumatic for people,” said Beyer, who began looking for a new home after her rent rose from $1,700 to $2,000. “At this time in our life, our world becomes so small, and it was as if this world had been ripped out from under our feet.”