Tenants of a New Brighton apartment complex, forced to move out in the dead of winter as crews began major renovations of the buildings, are alleging in a class-action suit that the new owner used an “illegal tenant removal system” that flouted state law designed to protect them.

And they’re including New Brighton as co-defendant in the suit, charging the city with aiding and abetting the owner by “fabricating false official documents” to allow the major renovations, exposing residents to potentially hazardous construction debris.

The four Pike Lake Apartments tenants filed the suit this week in Ramsey County District Court against Robbinsdale-based Qt Property Management, its owner Jason Quilling and the city of New Brighton. As many as 120 past and current residents could join the suit, which alleges violations of the state’s landlord-tenant statutes, the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Consumer Fraud Act.

Attorneys for the tenants say Qt engaged in a tactic called “construction harassment” that’s used by landlords who want to quickly oust low-income tenants, remodel the building and then bring in new tenants for much higher rents.

“This is a business model we think is illegal and unsafe,” said attorney Jim Poradek of the Minneapolis nonprofit Housing Justice Center, which represents the tenants.

But Christopher Huntley, an attorney representing Qt, called the suit ”completely fabricated” and said there was “no basis for any of the claims brought in this complaint.”

New Brighton city officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The tenants want to recover rent paid to Qt during the construction, along with rental deposits, relocation costs and damages.

They also are asking a judge to order construction halted to ensure the safety of the few remaining tenants.

Huntley said landlords are placed in no-win situations. They’re liable if they don’t improve deteriorating properties like Pike Lake, he said, but then called to task when they make repairs that require significant construction.

Pike Lake is one of the latest “naturally occurring affordable housing” complexes in the metro area that has changed hands in the hot real estate market, only to be fixed up and renters charged more.

Construction crews began demolishing the buildings this winter, tearing out drywall, carpet and fixtures, removing most of the washers and dryers, and taking down security doors and storage lockers.

The suit alleges that families were exposed to dust, nails, paint chips and the smell of mold and formaldehyde.

An expert working for the tenants observed building materials that posed asbestos risks.

The suit charges that Qt posted snow emergency notices in the parking lot during periods with little snow and proceeded to tow vehicles. The owner also threatened to retaliate against tenants who spoke up, according to the suit.

‘A cautionary tale’

Qt purchased the 1960s-era apartment complex in December for $5.8 million, according to county records. Initially the company told residents it planned to renovate units as they turned over. Residents told the Star Tribune they hoped the new owners would address cockroach infestations, plumbing problems and other issues.

On New Year’s Day, residents got notes under their doors from Qt ordering them to vacate by the end of February along with what they called “explicit threats of eviction actions, attorneys’ fees and credit score reduction.”

Qt filed eviction notices against more than a dozen tenants whom they said had failed to pay past rent.

After construction crews began tearing up the building, tenants aided by the nonprofit advocacy group HOME Line packed a City Council meeting and pleaded with the council and mayor for help.

Many Pike Lake residents said they were paying $700 to $900 a month for one- and two-bedroom apartments. Once the buildings are renovated, rents could climb to $1,200, Qt staffers told them.

The suit alleges that Qt has a history of targeting “marginalized tenant population made up of protected classes for unfair housing treatment.” About 60% of recent Pike Lake residents were people of color, and many of the white residents were disabled or living on public assistance.

According to the suit, “Qt [was] confident they could quickly clear out the tenants and convert their apartments because the tenant population had racial, disability and public income characteristics making it unlikely that individual tenants have the power or resources to resist.”

New Brighton officials, who oversee rental licensing and inspection, according to the suit made Pike Lake an “attractive target” by allowing the property to “fall into deep disrepair” while allowing the previous owner to collect rent.

The suit alleges that Qt never received a valid rental license from the city, which is required to collect rent. When pressed by Housing Justice Center attorneys, city officials provided a rental license dated Dec. 10, 2019.

But an electronic tag on the document indicated it was created nearly two months later, on Feb. 6, after Qt had started collecting rent.

Attorneys for the tenants also allege the city did not require Qt to obtain building permits before starting major renovations in January.

“The evidence speaks for itself,” Poradek said. “We think it’s a cautionary tale of a municipality that prioritized developers over citizens.”